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Bone to be Wild
By Carolyn Haines
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2015 Carolyn Haines
All rights reserved.
From my observation point two floors above the central ballroom, I watch the dancers in their elegant ball gowns shimmying to the throb of Scott Hampton's lead guitar. It's a kaleidoscopic scene filled with the decadence of the French court, updated by two and a half centuries. Cece Dee Falcon, journalist, ball director, and friend has done herself proud with this year's Black and Orange Ball. She's raised thousands of dollars for charity, and proven once again that a Mississippi Delta girl knows how to host a party!
Wealthy people from across the Southeast have gathered in the City that Care Forgot for Halloween night to party and donate to a worthy cause. Women Growing Strong (WGS) is the beneficiary of this year's ball. Cece always picks something dear to her heart. This educational program to help battered women find jobs and gain independence from abusers is a good one.
New Orleans is a city that celebrates the past and present with equal graciousness. The Marble Ballroom of the elegant Treillage Hotel is a wonder of floating staircases and columns sculpted with vines. Cece has used every inch of the place to showcase her patrons, the donors who contributed large sums to WGS. The sumptuousness of the event rivals Oscar night in Hollywood. Designer gowns and jewelry worth millions adorn the women who are here to see and be seen. There is nothing like a no-holds-barred fashion competition to draw out the wealthy socialites for a night of rivalry and frivolity.
The ballroom fairly crackles with energy. Floral arrangements of lehuas and wallpeles, flown in from Hawaii late last night, festoon tables, their unique orange blossoms mixed with black tulips, black roses, and black hyacinths. Pots of the newly created Black Velvet petunias are at the center of every table. The petunias also serve as boutonnieres for the men. And Scott Hampton's band is the perfect blend of dance music and wailing blues that makes people want to rub belly buttons and forget that intimacy and attraction often come at a heavy price. The sexual charge of the music touches even me, and I'm half dead from emotional trauma.
The wee hours of All Saints' Day, the time when the veil between the living and dead is thinnest, has slipped over us. I feel like Cinderella as the bell tolls midnight. My magic has run out, and my carriage will revert to a pumpkin. It's time to go home. I want nothing more than my bed and the blessed forgetfulness of sleep.
Unfortunately, I can't leave. My friends are relying on me to be here. And what would I go home to? My fiancé—well, ex-fiancé—is in the air heading for Los Angeles. Flying away from me to begin a new life with the daughter he never knew he had, until last week. I approve of his decision, though I can't stop my heart from breaking.
I don't even have the company of Jitty, my resident haint. Since my return to Mississippi and my ancestral home of Dahlia House, she's been my constant—and constantly annoying—companion. Right now I would give a lot to hear her tormenting advice, her know-it-all tone of voice. Too bad Jitty has her own ball of string to rewind.
I'm alone at the ball of the year in an incredible gown from Armani on Rodeo Drive that Graf Milieu, the aforementioned former fiancé, bought for me. I need a cigarette, which is why I've slipped upstairs to a balcony over the street. My high heels tap like a sophisticate as I make my way to the French doors. They open onto a narrow ledge and a starry night. Spread out before me is a city that has charmed visitors for centuries. The French Quarter hugs the curve of the Mississippi River, a place soaked with history, romance, war, voodoo, jazz, and sadness, as well as joy. Just a few blocks down from the ball, Bourbon Street churns with life and laughter.
Music wafts up to me and I observe the tourists as I enjoy my smoke and drink. The best band is here at the ball, but I catch snatches of Dixieland, metal, rock, Irish, and country. New Orleans is a mishmash of music and culture, and it's one of the most fascinating cities in the world, at least to me.
I inhale the musty, sweet, spicy fragrance of the city, and my breath catches on a sob. At last I can grieve. I've held in so much that I feel like Scarlett when Mammy laces her into her corset. Now, while I am alone and no one is here to watch, I can yield a little to my grief. Not hysterics, just a release.
The ornate balustrade is too inviting to ignore, and I perch on it and dash away the tears with the heel of my hand. Tomorrow I'll go home. I'll rebuild the rhythm and routine of my life as a single woman. I've done it before, and I can do it again. My friends will be there. My work will keep me busy. Jitty will ride roughshod over my periods of depression and force me to action. The weeks will pass and I will wake up next spring or sometime in the future and realize that my heart is on the mend.
The tempo of the music coming from the ballroom changes, and the scent of gardenias comes to me so strong that I look around. A figure in a red sequined ball gown steps out of the shadows.
"I've got a bad case of the blues," she sings in a gritty, clear voice. "And, baby girl, you've got a heartache you don't deserve." She says the last as she sways toward me, the ebony hair upswept in a fashion from an era long gone.
I recognized the voice, but it took me a minute to place her. Dinah Washington. I'd been a fan of hers for years, though she'd died before I was born. My parents had all of her records in the music room, the big 78s and later the 33s, and I loved listening to them and remembering my folks dancing together like teenagers. "What are you doing here, Dinah?" New Orleans had plenty of ghosts and a melancholy singer was a perfect fit.
"The blues come to those who suffer, honey. I feel your pain, Sarah Booth Delaney."
"Well, you're in the right place." I realized that after all the time spent with Jitty, I wasn't a bit surprised that a dead vocalist would show up. "Sing away. I feel lower than a snake's belly. Sing about a good woman who lost her man."
She laughed, and I detected a more familiar sound. "Jitty!"
Before my eyes, Dinah transformed into Jitty the ghost, who'd lived during the Civil War with my great-great-great grandmother Alice. "I thought I'd left you back at Dauphin Island," I told her. My latest PI case had been as traumatic for Jitty as it had been for me, in a different way. She had a lot of reasons for hanging around the barrier island for a few days, at least.
"I learned what I needed. I thought you might enjoy some familiar company. Watching your dreams turn into dust brings on the need for a good friend."
She was that and so much more. She was dead and demanding and sometimes demented, but she was my friend. "So what's shaking in the Great Beyond?" I couldn't talk about Graf or the broken engagement. I didn't want to talk about how she'd come to be a slave at Dahlia House. Our stories were both too sad.
"Folks are worried about you," Jitty said.
Jitty sometimes carried messages—always cryptic and never straightforward—from the Great Beyond. "Yeah, I'm trying as hard as I can. I don't want to be a downer at Cece's big ball, but I can't hold up for much longer. I want to go in my room, soak in a tub, and drink Jack Daniels in copious amounts."
"You know I love the blues more than anything, but you got to shake this fugue settlin' over you. Dinah's got some great numbers, but maybe a little Stephen Stills is what you need. You know, 'Love the One You're With.'"
I studied Jitty, all elegance in her 1940s gown. She represented the generation of World War II women who waited for their men to come home from work and war. And she was advocating love the one I was with? "Bad advice." I made the sign of the cross with my index fingers.
"You had feelings for Scott Hampton not so very long ago."
She stated the truth. I'd had a hot and thrilling affair with Scott not so long after I returned to Zinnia. Touring as the main squeeze of a blues musician wasn't a life I could buy into, though it had been hard to let Scott go. But that was the past. "And I'm in love with Graf." I shook a finger at her. "What is wrong with you? I need to grieve. It's part of the healing process. Why are you trying to push me into the sack with another man?"
"Fertile eggs that soon won't be good for nothin'. Tick-tock! And Scott Hampton is here to stay. He's putting down roots. And a fine specimen of manhood."
"Jitty, this is no time for that foolishness. I don't want to raise a child by myself. I have a lot of good years left. Stop haranguing me about viable eggs and ticking clocks and—" She was laughing at me. "What?"
Amazingly, I did. The burst of anger had brought with it a tide of adrenaline. My body had shucked off the sob sister mode. "Dirty trick, though."
"All is fair in love and war, and I love you, Sarah Booth. Your mama would kick my butt if I didn't pull you out of the dumps."
I thought of Graf and felt myself slipping back to the bottom of a deep pit. "I can't help it. I had a ring." I held out my bare finger. "I was engaged. We were to marry and have children. We had careers and dreams and a future. All of that was taken from me. Just with the snap of his fingers."
Jitty came to sit beside me, her perfume sweet and thick like the New Orleans air. "It wasn't deliberate."
"It ain't over 'til the fat lady sings."
"It's over, Jitty. I know it here." I put my palm over my heart. "Graf and I were standing at a crossroads. He went right and I went left. That's a good-bye. We're traveling in different directions."
"Sarah Booth, there is no certainty in life except uncertainty. It's my fault for pushin' at you so soon. It just seems such a waste of ... talent not to jump that Scott Hampton standing right there on the stage. Your friend, Cece, is makin' eyes at the harmonica player. Lord, those two are about to catch on fire."
I wanted to punch her arm, but I feared I'd pass right through her, lose my balance, and fall into the street below. "Scott isn't some hot body to be used and cast aside."
Jitty's chuckle was rich and smooth. "I don't think he'd mind being used a little. Not judging from the way he was lookin' at you. That boy's still carryin' a torch."
It wasn't what I wanted to hear. Not now. "I need a new case."
"You need some viable sperm."
"If you can't stop pestering me about sex, go home to Dahlia House. Maybe spruce the place up, cook something comforting. In other words, be useful, not annoying."
"To what end? Useful was my past. Annoying is my present. You'll just have to put up with me, Sarah Booth. You're powerless to control me."
I wanted to say something clever, but she was gone. She'd lifted me from my depression, but I still had a ways to go to reach feeling good.
The balcony doors opened and Scott walked toward me. "I saw you leave the dance floor. You okay?"
"I am." I held up the cigarette pack. "Indulging in a very bad vice."
He carried two drinks, and he gave one to me. He'd remembered my fondness for Jack Daniels. "There are times for rigid discipline, and then there are times to cut yourself some slack. This would be a time to indulge."
"The music is terrific, Scott. Even better than I remembered." A truthful statement. He'd been the Blues Blizzard when I first met him, the icy-eyed, blond-haired, guitar wonder who came out of a non-blues tradition and took serious music aficionados by storm. A year in Europe had added a level of sophistication to his music that made it truly unique and totally his. The confidence he'd gained was also attractive.
"We've had to cover a lot of other people's material tonight. Folks like to dance to songs they know. When we get back to Zinnia, I want you to hear us at the club. The band and I have written some songs. I'm so excited about this, Sarah Booth. My very own club right in the heart of the place where the blues were born."
"I'm glad for you, Scott. And it's the perfect location. That crossroads at Sawmill and Pentecost roads is said to be the location where the devil made more than one bargain for a musician's soul." He'd taken every penny he could scrap together and put a down payment on Playin' the Bones, a wonderful blues venue in Sunflower County. The former owner had run it successfully for several years, but decided to sell when he got an offer in Chicago.
Some locals said the club had a special magic for a guitarist lucky enough to play there. At any rate, the location had a solid, loyal following and the hint of supernatural intervention only made it more exciting. Scott and his band, Bad to the Bone, would take the club to megavenue status, if his gamble paid off.
"I don't want to crowd you, Sarah Booth. You're going through a hard time. I want to be a friend right now, nothing more."
I forced a smile and put my hand on his arm. "Thank you. I'm so confused, I don't know what I really feel, except hurt."
"Who would? You took a blow. I'm sorry."
Scott had never been anything other than sincere. While his words threatened to open my wound, I knew they were meant to comfort. "It's done. I just have to adjust to the new reality."
"On another topic, Sarah Booth, I need your help."
"Did Tinkie put you up to this?" Tinkie Bellcase Richmond was my partner in the detective agency and the daughter of the man who owned Zinnia's only bank. She wasn't above sending a hot guitar player, who also happened to be an ex-lover of mine, to ask for help with a made-up problem.
"I haven't talked to Tinkie, but Cece thought it was a good idea for me to seek your counsel."
I snorted. "Cece has been panting after your harmonica player all night long. I'm not so sure she's capable of determining whether an idea is a good one or not. Her brain isn't working."
"I noticed she was getting cozy with Jaytee." Scott took my arm and led me back inside where the warmth was welcome. I hadn't realized how cold I was.
"Take a look," Scott said.
Cece's black-and-orange gown flowed around her tall, lean body like it was bewitched. Her upswept hair, elegant carriage, and the dress turned heads. She stood near the stage and watched the harmonica player with undisguised lust. Cece was due for some fun, and Jaytee looked like he could deliver.
"Cece's on the hunt." And was not holding back.
"And Jaytee is a man who likes to get caught." Scott finished his drink. "So will you help me with my problem?"
"Depends on what it is. I can't do math and I'm not all that great at investment advice."
He laughed, and I could clearly see the relief in his eyes. Everyone was afraid I'd spin into a bad depression and ... do what? Leave town? Drink myself silly? If either one would help, I'd do it, but a heartache wasn't something I could run away from or drown. Grief always found its target.
"I don't want to push this out of proportion, but I've gotten some threatening calls at the bar."
"What kind of threatening?"
"The caller said death was stalking each of us and would strike when we least expected."
That got my attention. Some folks didn't like the blues for what they labeled religious reasons, and others because white boys were playing what was once considered traditionally black music. And some people resented what they viewed as Yankee musicians coming to town to own businesses and put local musicians out of work. But to threaten bodily harm or death was a bit over the top, even for the ignorant/backward contingent.
"Male or female caller?"
"Death was stalking" was a peculiar way to phrase the threat. "Did the caller specifically refer to the band members?"
He shook his head. "No he didn't. I assumed it was aimed at the band."
"When did the calls start?" I wished I had my little PI notebook. I liked to write it all down.
"I bought the club the first of October and—"
"You've been in Sunflower County the whole month and I never knew?"
He shook his head. "I closed the deal the first of October, but we just got into town last week. We've been unpacking and working on the sound system, finding a cook, deciding on hours and music and how this is going to operate. I want Playin' the Bones to be the premier blues club in the Southeast. Memphis won't have anything on us." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Bone to be Wild by Carolyn Haines. Copyright © 2015 Carolyn Haines. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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