Dreamwalker, sheriff’s consultant, and amateur sleuth Baxley Powell is called upon to help investigate a suspicious fire. A meth cook is dead, but the homicide investigation leads to more than a drug supply chain. Someone is pulling the strings behind the scenes, and unless Baxley stops the killer, the world will never be the same.
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About the Author
Maggie Toussaint has published seventeen books, fourteen as Maggie Toussaint and three as Rigel Carson. She is president of the Southeast Mystery Writers of America and has a seat on the national MWA Board. She is also a member of Sisters In Crime and Low Country Sisters In Crime. Toussaint won the Silver Falchion Award for Best Cozy/Traditional mystery in 2014. Additionally, she won a National Readers Choice Award and an EPIC award for Best Romantic Suspense. She lives in coastal Georgia, where secrets, heritage, and ancient oaks cast long shadows. Visit her at maggietoussaint.com.
Read an Excerpt
With her thick braids and lush figure, Sister Cipriona Marsden always turned heads. If not for her family situation, she could've graced any fashion runway. I knew who she was, of course, since Sinclair County, Georgia, is so sparsely populated. We'd never met, until a moment ago when she walked through my back door. She'd parked her clunker on the grass behind my house. I guess she didn't want her clients to see her car at a dreamwalker's house.
I had begun to welcome clients into my home, so Cipriona's phoned request for an appointment today was part of my new normal. I'd listen to her request, cross the veil to deliver the message, and return to find another satisfied client. Among other things, my special talent allows me to pass messages from the living to their deceased loved ones. I am still new to this dreamwalker job, still new to embracing my extra senses, but I love helping people in this regard.
Some people call me a psychic, but I'm more comfortable with a dreamwalker label. I come from a long line of people with extrasensory abilities. Being the Dreamwalker means that locals and cops come to me when they want to contact the dead. Every request brings new challenges on both sides of the veil of life.
After greeting Cipriona, I served her iced tea and a slice of my father's homemade coconut bread. She devoured both so quickly, I gave her a second helping. As she ate, I made a mental note to send her home with several bags of fresh vegetables. Palm reading must not pay as well as dreamwalking, which routinely netted me donations of food at my back door. I welcomed the groceries since my family never charged for dreamwalker services.
"Thanks, Baxley." Cipriona blotted her lips with a napkin. "I didn't realize I was so hungry. Nerves, I guess. I've never visited a Dreamwalker before."
I'd never met a palm reader before, so we were even. Her aura pulsed in an odd way, and it wasn't pretty. Whatever was troubling this woman was affecting her entire being. Poor thing. When she came in, I sniffed the herbs in her modest sachet necklace and saw her distinctive anklet, a dime on a chain. Unusual jewelry for most folks in Sinclair County, but it worked with her gold and brown leopard-print dress.
"No reason to be nervous. I'm here to help," I said. "What can I do for you today?" "Before I say another word, I need your assurance you won't tell a soul I came here."
"I can keep a secret." Seems like I was bound to repeat these words over and over again in my new career. Between me and my father, who'd been the County Dreamwalker before me, we must know most of the secrets in the county. The title "County Dreamwalker" was a relic from an earlier time. As far as I knew, I was the only official Dreamwalker in Georgia, though there seemed to be others around who could traverse the veil of life.
"Um-um, girl, I wish I had your striking hair. That theatrical accent would be great for my business. How'd you dye it so snowy white?"
A demon had held me over the fire, scorched my feet, and scared the living daylights out of me, along with my hair color. That was how, though Cipriona wouldn't hear it from me. "Trade secret."
She nodded in understanding. "This gig must pay pretty well. You got a really nice place."
Glancing around, I tried to see my home through her eyes. The overall vibe in the kitchen ranked between well-used and vintage, but I loved living here. "I inherited this place from my grandmother. All the furniture came with the house, which was lucky, because I sold my furniture before I moved back home. It feels nice to have her things around me. I feel connected to her." "I love my granny too." Cipriona's eyes welled with tears. She sniffed a few times. "Granny Elmira's in prison for killing my dad. That was her legacy to me. I got her trailer, though it isn't near as posh as this."
I remembered the story from the paper. Elmira shot her toxic son multiple times because she'd had enough of his aggressive, drunken behavior. The cops couldn't keep him in jail because people were so scared of him they wouldn't press charges. Rumor had it Damond killed his wife years ago, but there was no proof.
By all accounts, Damond was a terrible excuse for a human being, while Elmira had been the backbone of her church community. She'd singlehandedly raised her granddaughter. Apparently, even saints had their breaking point, because Elmira took out her son with a Glock.
"This is hard for me to admit," Cipriona said. "I don't have Elmira's sight. I'm purely faking it with my palm readings, so I can't speak to spirits. My clients believe I have psychic abilities I don't possess. Anyway, Elmira is stuck in prison. I wish I could spring her, but the lawyer exhausted all the appeals. The only way to save Granny is to prove my dad murdered my mom. We need new evidence. If I can prove she did society a favor, maybe she could get out for time served. She's all the family I got left. I have to save her."
Cipriona was shaking so badly and her aura pulsing so erratically, I needed a way to calm her nerves. I'd secured all our pets, three dogs and two cats, in my daughter's bedroom as soon as Cipriona arrived. Seeing how upset the woman was, I knew our Chihuahua would help her.
I gently cleared my throat. "Excuse me just a minute."
Cipriona dabbed the tears from her face with a napkin and nodded. I dashed upstairs and extracted Elvis from the pack sleeping on my daughter's bed. He licked my face. Little Elvis was a therapy dog, and I hoped he'd work his usual magic on my current client.
When I strolled into the kitchen with him, Cipriona's face lit up. "What a cute doggie."
"His name is Elvis, and I would like you to hold him."
She took the dog and snuggled him close. Elvis rewarded her with a few licks and nestled in her arms. I watched as she cooed at the little guy, her tears drying.
"Thanks," Cipriona said. "You're good at this."
"I'm lucky to have a strong support system, but every client's needs are different. I can't promise you we'll help your granny. Even if I can find your parents on the Other Side, spirits don't always cooperate. Some of them are hostile and hold a grudge."
Cipriona didn't look up from stroking the Chihuahua. "I understand, but I have to try. I love my granny."
The woman's aura cleared with each second she held little Elvis. But something was bugging me about Cipriona, and I couldn't quite put my finger on it. "Another thing you should know is that time isn't the same over there. If I have to locate two spirits, it could go really fast or it might take all afternoon. My daughter will get home from school in an hour. If I'm still dreamwalking, will you and Elvis make her an after-school snack?"
I took a deep breath. "All right then. To begin, I need objects that belonged to your parents. I mentioned them to you when you booked the appointment earlier today."
"I don't have anything from my mom. She died so long ago, and we moved a lot. I brought you a pair of my dad's suspenders." With one hand still holding Elvis, she bent at the hips to retrieve them from her large purse.
The brown elastic suspenders were stretched out of shape, and the metal clasps in front had lost their gold plating. I gestured for her to place the item on the table. A cold chill coursed through me. I'd be searching for a man who had murdered his wife, a man so heinous his own mother had killed him.
"Two questions. What I should ask Damond? What's your mother's name?"
Cipriona's brief smile didn't reach her eyes. "Zaidee. Ask him why he took her from me."
"Here's the deal. I have no doubt I'll find Damond, but spirits are peculiar. Some of them speak to me, while others only show me a scene from their life. What evidence do you hope he'll reveal about your mother's death? The murder weapon?"
"His meat-fisted hands are the murder weapon. He beat my mom nearly to death, then he started on me. My mom rallied to jump on his back, and then he strangled her, right in front of me."
Cipriona's aura pulsed and flashed like a thunderstorm. What a horrific scene she'd described. My heart went out to her again. "How old were you?"
"Did you tell the cops what you saw?"
She recoiled. "Hell, no. I didn't want him to kill me. He stayed away for a long time, but he came back when I was seventeen. That was bad. Bad, bad, bad."
"He said I looked just like Mama and that I owed him. That she was dead because of me." Her voice trailed off to a whisper. "He climbed in my bed and tried to...."
I got the message. Gritted my teeth. "Did he?"
"I screamed and screamed. Granny came running. Told him to get out of her house. He said she couldn't make him, and if she didn't watch her mouth, he'd beat the life out of her."
It was so quiet I could hear the faint tick of the wall clock, the electrical hum of the geriatric refrigerator. "Then what happened?" "Granny shot him. In the pants. And the face."
I wanted to hug her, but I didn't want to spook her. At the same time, my sixth sense stirred again. Something was off about this account. Perhaps the father had indeed done something terrible to Cipriona, and she didn't want that to be known. No parent should betray a child like that.
I gently cleared my throat. "The things you've seen. I'm so sorry."
Cipriona shrugged. "At the time, I thought everybody had the same troubles. But that's in the past. I've got a life now, and I need to help my granny. I couldn't tell the cops what he'd done to me, not if I wanted to hold my head up in this town. Granny paid the price for my pride. Get Damond talking. See if he'll brag about other crimes, or killing my mama, so we can prove Granny did humanity a favor and that he wasn't the upstanding citizen his lawyer said."
My teeth ground together at the way her voice broke. Her last words rang true and convinced me she needed an advocate and possibly a miracle or two. "I'll try."CHAPTER 2
My palms tingled as I stared at the suspenders on the table. I'd made arrangements for Larissa, I'd heard the client speak the truth about her plight, but something in the air besides the musty spices around the woman's neck made me hesitate. I wished my medium friend was here instead of visiting his daughter in Florida. It would be nice to have the extrasensory backup. "Is there anything you're not telling me?"
Cipriona shrugged. Nerves. Had to be. With company coming later today, I couldn't afford to dither, so I set aside my misgivings, reached for the suspenders, and opened my senses. After crossing the veil of life so many times, I knew what to expect. The weightlessness. The feeling of falling. The unrelenting darkness. The numbing cold.
Dreamwalking was no picnic, and this journey into the afterlife proceeded as expected. Once I reached the spinning stage, I righted myself until my feet touched down again. Not my actual feet. In this other realm, I'm in spirit form only.
Gradually the fog thinned, and I found myself outside a bar. The dim light over the door illuminated a painted sign, Low Spirits Bar. There was nothing else in the murk, no wandering bad-boy spirits, no guardian angel, no nothing. Which meant Damond Marsden was inside or he wanted me to see this place.
I entered through the door, and the gloom didn't lift. "Damond?"
Feeling like I was blindfolded, I edged in the direction of his voice. "I came to see you."
"I don't want to be seen. Go away."
"You're spending the afterlife sulking in a bar?"
"What's it to you, lady? A man's entitled to a drink every now and then."
His voice sounded slurred, as if he'd been actually drinking. How was that possible? "My name's Baxley Powell. I'm a Dreamwalker. Your daughter asked me to find you."
He muttered something I couldn't hear. I kept inching toward him, hands outstretched.
"Don't trust that witch."
I stopped short at the half-truth ringing in his words. What part was truthful? The not-trusting part or the witch part? "I don't understand."
"Cipriona and my mother are thick as thieves. Always have been. Always will be."
"Why are you telling me this?" I stopped, upset with him for keeping me in the dark. "Why are we here?"
"I got nowhere else to go. Nobody wants to see me looking like this."
Irritation coated my voice. "Like what?"
A spotlight shone on Damond. I gagged at the raw flesh and bone of what was left of his face.
"I'm a freak. She did this to me."
"You don't have to look like that," I hastened to explain. "All you have to do is imagine how you looked before you got shot."
"What if I don't wanna? What if I'm sitting here waiting for her to join me in this hell? What if I want to scare the shit out of my own flesh and blood?"
I gulped, or what passed for a gulp in spirit form. "You have the power to change your appearance at will. You can look like yourself at any point in your life."
"I'm no afterlife expert, but that's been my experience with spirits I've contacted."
The spotlight winked on again. I braced for gruesomeness, but I saw a kaleidoscope of faces. Damond the man grinned at me, Damond the handsome young adult winked at me, Damond the teen pointed pistol fingers at me, and Damond the little boy looked like he needed a hug.
"Whoa!" I said. "You don't need to be everyone at once."
"But I like this. Why didn't anyone tell me?"
"Have you talked to anyone?"
"Nah. Two young kids tried to catch me as I arrived, but when I turned around the girl screamed until she thinned out to nothing. The guy followed her. After that I kept to myself."
"You don't have to stay in here. You can leave the bar."
"Don't wanna go anywhere. If you found me here, this is where she'll find me."
"It doesn't work that way. People like me can find you wherever you are."
"In that case, I'm gonna hop me a Harley and do a wheelie out of this dive."
"Wait! I need something from you."
"Of course you do. You're a woman."
"No need for sarcasm. Your mom's sitting in prison because of shooting you. Your daughter wants to help her. She wants you to help spring your mother."
"She killed me. I won't help her."
He had a one-track mind. I had a sinking feeling I was wasting my time. But I had to try, for Cipriona's sake. "I understand that's how you see it, but if you could remember the woman who raised you, who bent over backward for you and shaped you into the man you became, perhaps you'd want to do the right thing here."
"Because you killed your wife. Is there anything that will support that claim? Or are there other crimes you'd confess to that might help your mother get a reduced sentence?"
"Lady, I didn't kill my wife."
"Cipriona said she saw you do it. She saw you beat your wife. Cipriona said she tried to stop you but you hurt her and then killed her mother in front of her."
He settled on the adult version of himself, prior to being shot in the face.
His eyes flashed demon red. "Lies."
My spirit self took a step back. "You didn't kill your wife?"
"I loved Zaidee. We was going to have us another baby."
"If you didn't kill your wife, who did?" "Ask the witch."
Not this again. He was talking to me, but his answers didn't go anywhere. "I'd like to ask Zaidee. Know where I can find something that belonged to her?"
"Good question. How long've I been dead?"
"When'd you die?"
He named a year. I did the math. "Two years."
"She been gone more'n twenty. Doubt anything of hers remains."
He glared at me. "Stay away from Cipriona."
The malevolent look had me glancing down to make sure he hadn't seared a hole through my body. I seemed to be whole, so I continued, "Why?"
"She's not who she seems." With that, a motorcycle revved, and Damond scratched off.
Dang. So much for an easy case. I'd found him, but I'd gained nothing.
Worse, I would have to deliver the bad news to my client.CHAPTER 3
I awakened in my chair, alone in my kitchen with a pair of ratty suspenders in my hand. My mouth was so dry I wished I'd left a glass of water on the table for myself. Something stirred at my cold feet. Crazy thoughts of gigantic boa constrictors filled my head. I shook them off and glanced down.
The little Chihuahua barked at me and raced laps around the kitchen. I glanced at the clock. A few minutes before Larissa's bus. Where was Cipriona? I called her name and got no answer.
On shaky legs, I made it to the sink for water. I drank greedily, then wiped my mouth. No jalopy in the backyard. My client had left? How odd. People who requested news from the dead always stuck around to hear what I'd seen or heard.
I reached for my phone, found the last number that called me, and hit redial. Cipriona didn't pick up so I left a message at the beep. "I found your father, but he wasn't helpful. I'm sorry that I don't have better news for you or your granny. Please let me know what you want to do with these suspenders."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Confound It"
Copyright © 2018 Maggie Toussaint.
Excerpted by permission of Camel Press.
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