When the brisk winds of October skim over the drying bolls of cotton, I find myself caught in the web of time. In the rustle of the cotton leaves, in the clear light of autumn, and the grape smell of blooming kudzu, the past lurks like a siren, promising the pleasure of memory and delivering the pain of regret.
Sitting on the front porch at Dahlia House, sipping a third cup of coffee, I watch the sycamore leaves drift into the driveway. Dahlia House needs a coat of paint. I need so much more than that.
The leaves of the calendar seem to be shedding faster than the sycamores, and I'm caught in limbo. I went to bed last night thinking about Sheriff Coleman Peters and his pregnant wife, and I awoke this morning remembering the feel of Scott Hampton beside me. I sat up in bed, knowing that I let Scott walk away without a single word that might have encouraged him to stay. One word. Please. It might have been enough.
That I couldn't ask him to stay while I sorted through the secrets of my heart doesn't make it any easier to wake up alone, remembering a man's touch. October arouses terrible longings. The Delaney womb is sending a series of demanding and not-so-subtle messages.
"If I didn't know better, I'd say you were havin' a case of the low-down and dirties." The familiar voice came from behind me. "The blues, unless you're singin' 'em, are a total waste of time, Sarah Booth Delaney."
I sniffed the air, catching the tantalizing scent of a cigarette. I hadn't smoked in three years, but the craving was on me in a flash. Glancing over my shoulder, I was amazed to see Jitty, a circa 1850's ghost, reclining in a rocking chair, with one leg draped over the arm. A lazy drift of smoke curled from a cigarette holder in her right hand.
"What are you doing?" I was astounded at the cigarette and her outfit. Her dress was a short, tight tube of glittery mauve material layered with black fringe. A matching band of material circled her head, allowing some artfully arranged curls to escape. Clunky shoes with high heels were strapped across her feet, leading up to stockings with a seam.
"Close your mouth," she advised, clamping the cigarette holder between her teeth. "I ain't smokin', I'm just stylin'."
"What would it hurt if you were? You're a ghost," I pointed out. "You can smoke without any ill effects."
"Smoke won't kill you nearly as quickly as regrets," Jitty said matter-of-factly.
"What are you doing in that getup?" I asked, indicating her dress. "It's nine o'clock in the morning." Jitty, as the resident haint of Dahlia House, punched no mortal time clocks. She was on the job twenty-four/seven. "Not even ghosts have costume balls in the morning, and you're about a week early for Halloween."
"You are in a mood," she said. "Scott Hampton wasn't the man for you, Sarah Booth. He'da made one fine sperm donor, but he wasn't built for the long haul. Quit kickin' yourself and focus on the positive."
"Like what?" I asked, and then instantly regretted it. Asking Jitty such a question was a bit like inviting a vampire into your house.
"Do you know when women got the right to vote?" she asked.
I sighed. "No, I don't. And I don't care. My own personal history is troublesome enough without taking on the world. I know everything there is to know about me, and I still can't fix my life. Knowing all that history won't help anyone. It just makes a person run around in strange outfits."
"It was 1920. Up until your mother's generation, women couldn't even establish credit in their own name. Back then, a woman didn't have a man, she didn't stand a chance of survivin'. Leastways nowadays you can be an old maid and still keep your property."
I looked at my black coffee and wished for a good dollop of Jameson in it. To that end I got up and went inside. Instead of going to the parlor where the bar was, at the last minute I turned left and headed for my new office. I'd been up since five arranging the two new desks, two new chairs, filing cabinets, telephones, fax machine, and other office paraphernalia. I'd had a busy and productive morning. Until I'd started thinking about Scott.
Jitty followed me, lecturing as she went, but I wasn't about to encourage her by answering. The past haunted both of us, and I saw no good end in indulging in it.
The room I'd selected as the official digs for Delaney Detective Agency was a master bedroom suite in the east wing of the house. It was perfect because it had its own entrance and a small sitting room that would serve perfectly for a receptionist, should that day ever arrive when we could afford one. I'd kept the entire project a secret from Tinkie, but I was expecting her at any minute so I could spring the surprise. Her desk even had a nameplate. And the frosted glass exterior door said Delaney Detective Agency. The next lines were Delaney and Richmond, Private Investigators.
"What do you think, Jitty?" I couldn't resist asking her, though she had grave doubts about my ability to decorate.
"It would look a lot better if there were a few clients sitting around in it."
"I'll get another case," I said, wondering if that was true. Six weeks is a long time for a detective to lay fallow. "Maybe we should celebrate the new office with a Bloody Mary?"
"There was a time when a woman couldn't walk in a bar and order a drink." Jitty's chocolate eyes sparkled.
The part about bars got my attention fast. "When did that change?"
"Your mother's generation. At least, that's when it became publicly acceptable for women to drink in bars. 'Course, women have always drunk liquor, and I'm not talkin' about a dainty glass of sherry. The rule was that decent women didn't drink." She raised perfectly shaped eyebrows. "I guess a gal like you would've ended up in the hoosegow or scrubbin' floors in some mission."
Jitty's point was well taken. I was benefiting from many generations of work on the part of courageous women who demanded change in the way their gender was viewed and treated. I sat down at my desk and put my feet up. "Okay, so I've come a long way, baby. I concede that point. How about an exhibit of the Charleston?"
"Sit up straight and quit actin' like some kind of tart," Jitty said. "Our work's not finished. Not by a long shot. It ain't time to put your feet up yet."
My glow of feminism paled. Jitty had an agenda; I was going to suffer. This was one equation that never failed to prove true. "I need a new case, Jitty, not a social conscience."
"You need both of them. But even that won't fulfill your female destiny. What you need is a man. You're the generation that can have it all, remember?"
Leave it to Jitty to state the obvious when my friends weren't doing it.
"Thanks. I'll check the newspaper and see if they have any good sales going on men." But she had backed herself into a corner, and I was going to enjoy watching her try to squirm out of it. "Think about it, though, Jitty. If I'm going to be the spearhead for women's rights in Sunflower County, I think it would look a lot better if I were independent. You know, one of the I-don't-need-a-man-for-nothin' women. If I had a husband, it would make me look like a hypocrite, don't you think?"
"Ticktock, Sarah Booth. You gonna rationalize yourself right into barrenness."
"Go away and leave me alone." Jitty knew my hot buttons way too well.
"I'll be back," she said, and though it was spoken in a soft drawl, it had the definite ring of the Terminator. And then she was gone.
My attention was drawn to the green Caddy coming down the driveway, and I felt a little tingle of happiness to see my partner arriving.
The new office had windows facing the front and the side, so I'd have a good view of anyone driving up. This is a great advantage for an investigator, who should always present the illusion of never being caught by surprise. I smiled at the thought of Jitty and her new obsession. Some would say I was discussing illusions with a delusion.
I heard Tinkie's rap at the front door. "Come in," I hollered. "I'm in the Peacock Suite." So called because of the huge vase of peacock feathers that stood in a corner of the room. I'd thought about removing them but decided Tinkie and I needed all the luck we could muster.
"What in the world are you doing on this side of the house? I was thinking when you called so early that you were probably making a batch of French toast. I just had my mouth set on" She made it to the doorway and stopped.
Her gaze moved around the room, taking in every detail. At last it stopped at her desk and the nameplate. "Sarah Booth," she squealed in her best sorority sound of incommunicable happiness. She snatched up the nameplate. "It's wonderful!"
I was grinning big when Tinkie lowered Chablis to the floor and gave me a hug, her head tucked under my chin. The little Yorkie, delighted to be free, rushed toward the kitchen and my own dog, Sweetie Pie. The two were as unlikely a pair as Tinkie and I, but they were also great friends.
"I thought we needed a real office," I said.
"My name is on the door." There were tears in her eyes.
"You're half the agency."
"You're too much, Sarah Booth."
"And you're hungry. Let's go make some breakfast."
"If that's what you'd like."
We were halfway to the kitchen when the red telephones began to ring. I'd stolen the red phone idea from Kinky Friedman, and I got a real thrill when they rang.
We rushed back to the office. I started to pick one up, but then I nodded at Tinkie.
"Delaney Detective Agency," she said, her eyes shining. "This is Tinkie Richmond speaking."
There was a long pause. "Yes, I see. Let me confer with my associate, and we'll call you right back." She picked up a pen and made a note of a phone number on a pad. When she hung up the phone her eyes were wide. "That was a nun from New Orleans. She wants to hire us to help a woman in Sunflower County Jail."
We needed a case. Or at least I did. Tinkie had a rich husband and a rich daddy. Financial needs weren't part of her landscape.
"A nun?" Sunflower County had a Catholic church, St. Lucy's. There was a priest, but the head count for nuns was zilch. "Did she say who the woman was or what she'd done?"
Tinkie nodded. "Her name is Doreen Mallory. She's charged with murdering her infant girl in New Orleans."
The ditches were filled with the nodding heads of black-eyed Susans. Tinkie drove the big Caddy and talked excitedly about the upcoming interview with Doreen Mallory. I looked out the window and wondered what I would say to Coleman. I hadn't seen him since the August night that Spider and Ray-Ban had been arrested for the murder of Ivory Keys. That was the night his wife had caught us in an embrace and announced her pregnancy.
All in all, it was a low point of my life.
"I heard Connie's having a tough time with the pregnancy," Tinkie said.
"I'm sorry to hear that." But I wasn't. Connie had deliberately gotten pregnant because she knew she was losing her husband. I wished her morning, midday, afternoon, evening, and night sickness.
"I heard Coleman was taking her to Jackson for psychiatric help." Tinkie kept her eyes on the road.
"Probably a good thing." I felt a pang, but I wasn't certain if it was guilt or hope or revenge. I didn't want to examine it further.
"Did you ever talk to Coleman?" she asked point-blank.
I looked at her. "No. What was there to say? I'm ashamed of myself. And I'm embarrassed for him. He's married and his wife is having his baby. That's all there is to it."
Tinkie slowed the car. "I never thought you were dumb, Sarah Booth, but you're sure acting like blonde roots have snarled up your brain. You and Coleman have to talk about this and settle it once and for all. You can't leave things up in the air."
"You're going to have to see him in just a few minutes. What are you going to do, pretend that you don't feel something for him?"
"That was my plan."
She rolled her eyes. "I never took you for a coward."
That stung, and my first reaction was an urge to lash out, but I didn't. Tinkie was never cruel. And this time she was right. Avoiding Coleman had been the easiest path. Now I was going to have to face him.
"I know I need to talk to him. I honestly don't know what to say. He's trapped. Nothing I say can change that. He can't abandon Connie now. The best thing we can do is avoid each other."
Tinkie sighed. "Do you ever hear anything from Bridge?"
Bridge Ladnier was a wealthy entrepreneur Tinkie had tried to set me up with. I'd mistakenly pegged him as a murderer in my last case. "He sent me my mother's earring that I dropped in his house. I thought he and Cece had sort of hit it off."
"He's a nice man," she said, picking up speed again. "He's developed a friendship with Cece. I know he was smitten by you, Sarah Booth."
Had Bridge come into my life at any other time, I might have fallen for him. "I made a mess of everything."
Tinkie pulled into a parking space at the courthouse square. "Not everything. You solved the case, freed Scott Hampton, salvaged Ivory's dream, and made Ida Mae a happy woman. That's not bad."
"With your help, Tinkie. But thanks, you always say the right thing." I reached over to touch her hand but she was already a blur of motion exiting her car.
"I'm going to the ladies' room," she said, dashing up the courthouse steps. It was only when she'd disappeared inside that I realized why she was in such a hurry. Coleman Peters was getting out of the car beside me. His gaze was locked on mine.
I slowly got out of the Caddy and stood with one hand on the door. He walked over, and for a moment I thought he was going to pull me into his arms. But he didn't. We stood staring at each other, and I realized that we didn't need to say much. I read everything on his face: futility, exhaustion, lost hope, a grim determination to do the right thing.