When a ritually murdered corpse is discovered at a Native American temple site smack in the middle of Sunflower County, Mississippi, the archeology crew on the dig is immediately under suspicion—with particular focus on its easy-on-the-eyes, charismatic leader, Dr. Frank Hafner. So when Sheriff Coleman Peters closes in on him, Hafner hires the Delaney Detective Agency to clear his name.
“Appealing…distinctive…atmospheric…Fans and newcomers alike will be satisfied.”
Rumors swirl around the Mound Salla burial mound, where more dead bodies are turning up. Sarah Booth and her partner, Tinkie, have too many likely suspects to whittle down the list. It’s a race against time once Sarah Booth’s resident ghost, Jitty—in the guise of various Native American warrior women—points to the waxing of the coming Crow Moon as the time of maximum danger. As history and mystery cloak the site, Sarah Booth isn’t sure what to believe, or whom. Can she dig up the truth before she herself ends up six feet under?
“A dark mystery, effectively framed by its well-drawn Mississippi Delta setting.”—Booklist
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March is the month when hope returns. Even a spirit sorely challenged and worn down finds renewal in a shaft of warm March sunlight or the sight of green pushing through the soil. The new plantings that stretch from horizon to horizon across the vast Mississippi Delta seem to vibrate with a soft green haze that is nothing less than magical.
It's the perfect, crisp morning for a horseback ride, and I've saddled Miss Scrapiron and set off around the western property line with my loyal hound, Sweetie Pie, at my side. The smell of the soil is familiar and calming, as is the motion of my horse. This is a morning of perfect awareness, a feast for the senses. I stop at a brake that bisects a field to take in the tiniest buds on the tupelo gum trees. Miss Scrapiron stamps her foot and snorts, impatient. She is a creature of movement, of elegant maneuvers, of speed and agility. She wants to run, and after I bid the spring buds a welcome, I loosen the reins, lean in to her neck, and let her sweep me across the land in a rhythm of pounding hooves that is as primal as a heartbeat.
I let her run until her neck is flecked with foam where the reins touch her, and when she slows of her own accord, I look back to see Sweetie Pie coursing toward us. She, too, is glad of a rest and flops onto the cool earth for a moment. Horse, dog, and human amble over to a small spring-fed creek swollen with spring rains. Sweetie Pie unceremoniously leaps into the middle of it, despite the chill, and comes out shaking.
In the stillness of the brake, I listen to the trill of tiny songbirds. They flash yellow and brown through the pale and leafless tree trunks. In another two weeks, the green haze will settle over the trees as winter yields to spring.
I awoke this morning after a troubling dream. Only the fragments remain — a bare-chested man wearing a bear-head mask. There are images scrawled across his chest with red, white, and black paints. I wonder if this is a visit from a past dweller on the acreage that comprises my property and home, Dahlia House. Long ago, before the white men came down in wagons to claim the land as their own, the Mississippi Delta was home to numerous indigenous tribes.
At times, most often dusk or dawn, I've seen the spirits of slaves or state prisoners contracted out for labor clearing the land or hoeing the long rows of crops. They are a vision from a long dead past, but I've watched them toil against the purpling sky, hearing the chants of the field hollers that allowed them to work in a steady, unrelenting beat. Those old work songs are the bedrock of the blues.
Today the fields are empty of ghosts. The sun and rain must do the work to bring the tiny plants taller. Humans have no magic for this part of the process. This is Mother Earth's gift to us. The vast acreage of Dahlia House is leased to a local farmer. I have none of the talents — or the love of gambling — that is necessary to put a fortune into a crop of corn, soybeans, or cotton and hope the weather and the market cooperate enough to bring a profit. I've saved out forty acres around Dahlia House for a hayfield where the same man who leases the property cares for the Alicia Bermuda grass pasture to make winter hay for my horses. That's risk enough for me.
I turn Miss Scrapiron toward home. I'm meeting the handsome sheriff of Sunflower County, Coleman Peters, for breakfast. He's cooking and I'm eating, which is a fine arrangement. Last night he worked late, so he didn't spend the night with me, but we'll catch up before we both begin our workday. His inclusion in my life has given me, like the land I love, a sense of balance. I'm still terrified of allowing myself to love him with everything in me, but on mornings like this, as I anticipate seeing him pull into the driveway and get out of his cruiser, I feel the shell around my heart softening. No one can protect us from loss or injury. If you love, you risk. I want to risk. I want to abandon my fear, but right now, caution is the only path I can travel.
"Sweetie Pie." I call my dog from the brake where she's gone sniffing the trail of a raccoon or opossum. She's a hunting dog who now seizes on the scents of evildoers and has more than once saved my skin from bad people. The small furry creatures that roam the land, though a point of curiosity, are safe from her. And from me.
The wind blowing across the wide-open fields has a chill to it, but the sunshine on my back warms me through the light polar riding vest I wear. Miss Scrapiron rocks my hips with her long-legged Thoroughbred stride. I close my eyes and simply enjoy the sensation of sun and movement. My cell phone rings out with "Bad to the Bone."
Tinkie Bellcase Richmond, my partner in the Delaney Detective Agency, is on the horn. Tinkie, aside from being my best friend, is the Queen Bee of all the Delta society ladies. She is a bred-in-the-bone Daddy's Girl, the 180-degree opposite of me. She holds teas, cotillions, garden-club gatherings, and debutante balls for the social elite. She knows the DG handbook of proper behavior backward and forward and manages to cram in her social obligations between caring for her husband, Oscar, and helping me solve crimes. Beneath the coiffed hair and haute couture wardrobe beats the heart of a forensic accountant. Tinkie's daddy owns the local bank and her husband is its president. Tinkie comes from money and she knows how to track it, find it, and sort through the many paper trails every criminal leaves behind.
"What's shaking?" I asked. I like to sit on my horse and talk on the phone. It could only be better if I had a cigarette. Sadly, those days are behind me.
"What do you know about the archeological dig at Mound Salla?" Tinkie asked.
"Let's see. No one knew the mound was actually a real Indian mound until recently, though it's been in plain sight for at least two centuries. Most of it is wooded, and even though it's bigger than several football fields, no one paid much attention to it. I guess we all assumed it was something built way back when to avoid flooding. Then there was that house on top of it that the Bailey family lived in." I shrugged. "It was just always there."
"Until recently. Now it's some kind of archeological hot spot."
"Right. A crew started digging back around Thanksgiving. It's a team of university professors, some students, some archeologists. They believe Mound Salla was a sacred site for the Tunica tribe that once settled all up and down the Mississippi River."
"How did you know all that?" Tinkie asked.
"Mound Salla is not on the Mississippi River but here in Sunflower County. That's why it wasn't really explored or excavated until recently. No one suspected it was a burial mound. It never made sense that Natives built a mound this far from their normal settlements."
"That doesn't explain why you'd know this." She sounded a little testy.
"I thought I might go and volunteer to help with the dig so I read up on it," I said. "I love the idea of studying the original people that lived on this land."
"Old pottery shards, arrowheads, and for your trouble you get dirt under your fingernails that takes a professional manicure to clean out. And for what?"
Tinkie had never enjoyed making mud pies — it wasn't her style. She was more the accessorizing kind of girl. I loved finding treasures, even buried ones. "It's exciting to find things that tell the story of the past. Archeological digs show the day-to-day life of people who lived hundreds of years ago. Their struggles and celebrations. Their beliefs. It's fascinating." Okay, so I was a bit of a history geek sometimes. Most Delta society ladies were all over genealogy, doing their damnedest to prove they were descendants of the original Mayflower refugees. Right. My reading of the Pilgrims made them a club I didn't want to join — they were religious fanatics and a rather unpleasant lot. I kept hoping for more exotic DNA. Maybe gypsy!
"Hey, Sarah Booth. Did you hear me?" Tinkie's voice came over the phone. "We need to run out to the dig today. And Coleman said to cancel breakfast plans."
"Why? Why is Coleman canceling breakfast and why do you want to go to the dig?" Tinkie wasn't about to volunteer as a worker bee. The day was sunny and warming, but the cotton fields were still damp from a recent rain. The gumbo, as the soil was called, was notorious for clinging in thick cakes to the boots of anyone foolish enough to walk through the fields. And Mound Salla was in a large wooded area of low ground between two vast plantings of cotton.
"There's been a death." Tinkie was excited and repelled. I could hear it in her voice. I was aggravated.
"Tinkie! Why didn't you say that right off?"
"It's not like the dead person is impatient, Sarah Booth. Time means nothing to the dead."
I wasn't so sure that was true. My experiences with the ghost of my great-great-great grandmother Alice's nanny, Jitty, had taught me that dead people were keenly attuned to the passage of time, and the ticking biological clock of my eggs. Jitty haunted Dahlia House — and me. She was my family and my bane. "Who died?"
"One of the scientists involved with the dig."
"Not Dr. Frank Hafner?" I was shocked at the thought. Hafner had been in and out of Zinnia for the past several weeks and was a poster boy for the dedicated scientist who also worked out at the gym. Handsome, charming, and reputed to be a ladies' man, he'd also headed up three of the most successful archeological digs of the past two decades. He was quickly developing almost a cultlike following among serious archeologists.
"No, not Hafner. It's his coworker Dr. Sandra Wells."
"What happened?" I had visions of walls caving in or perhaps an accident with a pickax. Digs were always dangerous because the method of removing the soil also allowed for cave-ins and mistakes.
"Her body was found hanging above an intrusive burial grave. It's this really deep shaft someone — and not someone associated with the dig — cored out of the mound. They were either going to bury Dr. Wells' body and got interrupted or they were looking for something," Tinkie said. "Oh, yeah. Dr. Wells was tortured."
That was a surprise. "She was murdered?"
"She sure didn't torture herself, so it would seem she's the victim of murder," Tinkie said.
"Thanks for the sarcasm," I said.
"Sorry, it's just that I met Sandra Wells. She was a guest speaker at the Zinnia Historical Society. Prima donna, and she was a piece of work."
In Tinkie's terminology, a "piece of work" was either a conniving woman who trapped men into marriage or someone who pretended to be someone they were not. "How was she killed?"
"Hung upside down and her throat was cut. She bled out into a bowl just discovered in the dig. A ceremonial bowl that the lead archeologist, Frank Hafner, said could possibly have been used for human sacrifice."
"What?" That was way beyond gruesome for my home county. Things like that didn't happen in Zinnia. We had our share of murders, but not ritualistic killings. "The Tunica tribe wasn't known for human sacrifice. They were peaceful until the whites began claiming all their land."
Tinkie was matter-of-fact. "I'm just reporting what Frank said. By the way, he's our new boss. I took the case. You're always saying how you need money, so he paid the retainer upfront. Now we should hustle over to the dig and see the body before Coleman has it removed. Doc's already there."
I nudged Scrapiron into an easy trot. It was hard to hold the phone, post, and talk, but I managed. "I'll head that way as soon as I get home. Maybe five more minutes."
"I'm going out there. I'll take some photos at the scene and start the interview process. Hafner hasn't been arrested yet, but Coleman told him not to leave the premises."
"If Hafner is innocent, did he have any idea who the murderer might be?"
Tinkie's laughter was clear and contagious. "He thinks it's a spirit guarding the burial grounds, which means he's not pointing the finger at anyone until he has more information. He has this woo-woo story about the student workers too afraid to stay there after dark because of some spirit plodding around in the woods. But he's smart enough to know he's going to be the first suspect. He and Sandra Wells hated each other."
"Then why was she at his dig?"
"It was sort of their dig. She was awarded a grant that totaled over three-quarters of a million dollars and with the grant money, she bought a lot of specialized equipment. That's a lot of money for a dig that isn't likely to yield gold or jewels."
No kidding. Other than pottery shards and a better knowledge of the Native Americans who lived in the region, there wasn't any wealth to be gained. The Tunica tribe that populated the Delta area, adding onto the mounds left by a much earlier people, was not warlike. They'd gotten on well with all the French and Spanish explorers who'd walked through the land, sharing their food and hunting skills. Trouble began when the white settlers claimed the land as their own. In the Tunica world, the earth belonged to all and was meant to be shared. The concept of fences or property titles didn't exist.
Tinkie cleared her throat. "Hafner has made headlines with some of his finds in the mound."
There had been news media, photographers from national magazines, a few international delegates, and some tribal officials at the site. I'd driven by the mound, which had been there for centuries beneath a gracious old plantation house. The Bailey family that owned the house had abandoned it years back, and not so long ago the house had burned to the ground. Until Dr. Frank Hafner showed up with his crew of college kids to excavate, no one had given the property a second thought.
Miss Scrapiron clopped down the driveway with a trot that was easy to post, and I hung up so I could unsaddle and hurry to meet Tinkie. My single desire was to grab a cup of coffee and slap some makeup on my face, more to avoid getting chapped in the windy sunshine than for glamour reasons. When Miss Scrapiron was running free in the pasture with her buddies, I hurried to the back door. Someone stood in my kitchen window.
I stopped dead in my tracks to study the strong profile of the woman in my kitchen. She wore her hair braided and pulled back in a deerskin sheath decorated with beads. Her blouse was of woven fabric. Whoever she was, she was striking and fearsome.
In the back of my mind, I suspected that Jitty was at work, and I had to wonder about my dream of the masked person and the sudden murder at a dig excavating a Native American burial area. Now a bronzed warrior goddess was standing in my kitchen.
When I opened the back door, she turned to face me and I heard the rattle of a snake and the low, throaty tones of a Native American flute.
"There is danger around you." She lifted one hand, palm outward, and made a motion that seemed to encompass the space around me. "The grandfathers are unhappy. The grandmothers weep at the destruction of their rest."
"Who are you?" I asked. I knew it was Jitty, taking on the persona of someone who had come to give me a warning.
"I am Lozen, warrior, medicine woman, and prophet of the Cheyenne Chiricahua Apache. I am the right hand of my brother, Chief Victorio. We shield our people in battle. We protect our right to ride free. Though we are gone now, even our resting places are destroyed for the greed of some."
"Is this about the archeological dig?"
"This is about your need to be strong. You will be tested. You, too, must stand and fight for what you believe in."
A premonition touched me. Jitty was forever deviling me with half-cocked theories and advice that would land me in prison for twenty years. But this was something different. This was chilling and had the feel of ancient wisdom brought to me from the Great Beyond.
"Don't talk in riddles. Please just tell me."
She lifted a small earthen bowl she held in her right hand. She dipped the fingers of her left hand in the bowl and drew three red marks on each cheek. "Chiricahua for the Red People. For the red clay that is our home. For the right to ride free."
"Jitty." I whispered her name, almost a plea. Lozen was a fierce warrior and she had scared me so badly I found it hard to draw in a full breath.
The face of the warrior began to shift and meld, modeling into the softer features of my beloved haint. "Jitty!" I was so glad to see her I wanted to hug her, but I would clasp only empty air.
When I saw the eye roll that was so typical of my sassy ghost, I exhaled a long sigh. "What in the hell are you trying to do to me? I'm not fond of your impersonations, but sometimes they're at least entertaining. That was downright unpleasant."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Game of Bones"
Copyright © 2019 Carolyn Haines.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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