AGATHA AWARD FINALIST FOR BEST FIRST MYSTERY
LEFTY AWARD FINALIST FOR BEST HUMOROUS MYSTERY
DAPHNE DU MAURIER AWARD NOMINEE
Secrets, suspects, and Southern hospitality abound at Maggie Crozat’s Louisiana B&B in this first installment of the Cajun Country cozy mystery series
It’s the end of the summer and Prodigal Daughter Maggie Crozat has returned home to her family’s plantation-turned-bed-and-breakfast in Louisiana. The Crozats have an inn full of guests for the local food festival—elderly honeymooners, the Cajun Cuties, a mysterious stranger from Texas, a couple of hipster lovebirds, and a trio of Georgia frat boys. But when the elderly couple keels over dead within minutes of each other—one from very unnatural causes—Maggie and the others suddenly become suspects in a murder.
With the help of Bo Durand, the town’s handsome new detective, Maggie must investigate to clear her name while holding the family business together at the same time. And the deeper she digs, the more she wonders: are all the guests really there for a vacation or do they have ulterior motives? Decades-old secrets and stunning revelations abound in Ellen Byron’s charming cozy debut, Plantation Shudders.
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Maggie flew down southern Louisiana’s River Road in the red ’64 Falcon convertible that she’d inherited from her late grandfather. Strands of brown hair from her thick ponytail whipped her face, but after a day spent flouncing around in a polyester plantation belle gown as a tour guide at Doucet Plantation, the wind’s attack felt great.
The familiar scenery followed a pattern: bucolic countryside, hideous industrial plant, an empty field, hideous petrochemical plant. This was the schizophrenic nature of what the legendary road had becomeone plantation after another either demolished or demoralized with a monstrous neighbor. But there were some gorgeous survivors, like Doucetand Crozat.
As Maggie crossed the Mississippi and drove toward Bayou Beurre, she thought of tales her family told about love- struck suitors who swam across the mighty river, braving its wicked currents for the chance to woo her great-great-great-grandmother, Magnolia Marie Doucet. It sure beat the whassup” texts Maggie got from her last boyfriend.
The river receded into the background, and gradually the ratio of countryside to industrial complex tilted in countryside’s favor. She slowed down as she passed the large Welcome to Pelican” sign that featured a fat grinning pelican playing an accordion under the town motto, Yes, We Pelican! ”It was a clever way of reminding the world that local pronunciation required emphasis on the last syllable of the town’s name, not the first. But Maggie preferred her personal slogan: Pelican: The Town People Are Smart Enough to Come Home To or Too Dumb to Leave.”
Rather than make a left into Pelican, she stayed on course. A white fence appeared on the left side of the road, its long reach broken in the middle by an open gate. She turned and entered the property, driving down a hard-packed dirt road under a canopy of pine and oak trees. The trees forked left and right to embrace their prize: Crozat Plantation.
While the Doucets, her mom’s family, had long ago donated their historic cash guzzler of a plantation to the state, the Crozats, her dad’s family, had clung to their ancestral domain, which they now operated as a gracious bed and breakfast. It wasn’t the largest plantation in Louisiana, but with its classic Greek Revival architecture, Crozat was one of the most iconic. Thirty-two majestic square columns encircled the entire mansion. A second .oor balcony also ran its circumference, and each .oor featured a wide, welcoming veranda. Crozat was more human than house to Maggie, pulsing with life drawn from the generations of strong and quirky inhabitants it had sheltered for almost two hundred years.
As much as Maggie got a kick out of working at Doucet Plantation and entertaining visitors with her personal connection to it, Crozat was home. But it was a home she envisioned visiting during holidays or for the occasional getaway weekend from New York. It was not a place she planned to slink back to as a thirty-two-year-old whose personal life and career both hit a wall. The Brooklyn art gallery that Maggie and her boyfriend of six years had cofounded was now being run by her ex and the woman he’d married instead of her. She had returned to Louisiana searching for the inspiration she needed to ignite her own career as an artist, but success was proving elusive. Maggie feared that she disproved her own sloganmaybe it wasn’t so smart to come home to Pelican.
No,” she shouted into the air. She stopped the car, stood up, and shook her fist at the heavens in her best Scarlett O’Hara- reaches- the- end- of- her- rope imitation. As God is my witness, I will not have downer feelings today.” Maggie resumed a leisurely drive toward the plantation, and her melancholia melted away as she absorbed the lovely view of Crozat. She searched for a new perspective on the old home that she could bring to life through oil paints or vibrant watercolors, perhaps even pastels.
Then she suddenly shuddered as a chill ran through her lithe body on the warm August day.
People in Pelican took the shudders” seriously. Whenever they struck Maggie’s Grand-mère Crozat, she drawled dramatically, Someone’s walkin’ on muh graaave.” This was followed by a heated family debate over whom that might be until everyone agreed that it was a case for the town voodoo priestess, a woman respected both for her psychic abilities and for the fact she was the .rst local merchant to download the app that enabled her cell phone to take credit cards.
Maggie searched her mind for what could have spooked her but came up empty. Maybe this was just one of those rare cases where a chill was just a chill, she shrugged. Still . . . it made her nervous.
She drove past the plantation into a garage placed at the far end of the property, where guests wouldn’t notice its peeling paint. The Crozats were still playing financial catch-up after Hurricane Katrina, so repainting the family garage was on hold until possibly forever. Maggie parked, got out of the car, and walked to the family’s organic garden patch, where her mother, Ninette Doucet Crozat, was gathering vegetables. The family’s beloved Basset hound rescue, Gopher, was by her side. He was in his favorite position, head and torso resting on the ground, catching rays while the lower half of his body cooled off in a hole he’d dughence the name Gopher.
Need some help, Mom?”
I’m good,” Ninette said, pushing her baseball cap back to dab at a few drops of perspiration. Her tiny .gure disguised a will so strong that it had powered her through a bout of Hodgkin’s lymphoma in her early twenties. Your dad may need help, though. We had a few last-minute reservations come through. I think we’re finally full up for the week.”
Excellent. I was getting worried.”
We all were, honey. Now, why don’t you take this kale into the kitchen?”
Maggie took the basket of kale from Ninette and headed for the plantation kitchen, her steps lightened by the relief of a No Vacancy” sign. Late summer bookings had been hurt by a national trend toward starting the school year in August rather than after Labor Day. But if there was one time of year that every hostelry in Pelican should be booked up, it was the week of Fet Let.
Louisiana abounded with festivals celebrating its unique blend of cultures. They ranged from New Orleans’s world-renowned JazzFest to Pelican’s Fete L’eteFet Let to Pelicanersa casual event that honored the end of summer. Businesses and families set up stands around the town square where they sold crafts and fantastic homemade food made from recipes handed down through generations. Singers sang, fiddlers fiddled, and there was the requisite bounce house and petting zoo for the kids. To capitalize on the popular event, Maggie had suggested a Fet Let end-of-summer special, offering a discounted room rate plus breakfast, dinner, and happy hour for guests who booked August’s last full week. She was happy to see that her brainstorm had paid off.
She put the kale in the industrial- size refrigerator. Then she walked into the back parlor where her father, Thibaut Tug” Crozat, worked at a computer housed in a nineteenth-century secretary. Grand-mère Crozat, clad in pale blue linen pants and a crisp white blouse, her soft gray hair meticulously coiffed as always, sat on a nearby wingback chair. She had an iPad with an attached keyboard perched on her lap.
Are the reservations confirmed? Can I update our page?” Grand-mère asked her son. Gran’ had become the family social media maven, a poster girl for the computer-loving seniors who were chasing teens off Facebook.
All confirmed. Update away, Mama.”
As Gran’ gleefully posted on the plantation’s Facebook page, Maggie peered over her father’s shoulder at his computer screen. Tug’s red-gold hair took on a metallic glint in the evening’s setting sun. What’s the breakdown?” she asked.
Two couples, one of them honeymooners; some college boys here to fish; a single male; a family from Australia; and four women who are the executive board of a group called the Cajun Cuties, a national group of Cajun wannabes,” Tug said. They usually meet at Belle Grove Plantation to plan the year’s activities, but Belle Grove’s guesthouse .ooded this morning and they rebooked them to us.”
Thank you, Belle Grove’s antiquated plumbing,” Maggie said.
Amen to that,” Tug seconded. Should be an interesting week.”
Maggie and her dad shared a grin. Then she shuddered again.
Tug looked at her, concerned. You okay?” he asked.
Yes. I don’t know where that came from.”
Oh, dear,” Gran’ said. She pursed her lips. Shudders. That’s not good. Not good at all.” She made the sign of the cross and her son shook his head, amused.
No need to get melodramatic. Right, Maggie?”
Right.” Still, Maggie couldn’t help notice her father surreptitiously crossing himself as well. Tug was the Crozat least susceptible to local superstitions. Something had spooked him, which only made Maggie more nervous.
Later, as soon as Maggie finished a dinner that was heavy on kale, she drove into Pelican’s Historic Business Centera lofty name for what was essentially a sleepy village. Its picturesque center featured four blocks of two-story buildings with wrought iron balconies that framed a town green, an unusual feature for the area and the pride of Pelican.
Maggie parked in front of two shops, Bon Bon Sweets and its sister store, Fais Dough Dough Patisserie. She grabbed some boxes from the Falcon’s backseat and walked through Bon Bon into the workroom that it shared with Fais Dough Dough. High school student Briana Poche, her brother Clinton, and a few friends sat at a table stuffing small gauze bags with various herbs, roots, and talismans. Supervising them was Maggie’s cousin, Lia Tienne. Although Lia was seven years older than Maggie, the two had grown up together and were bonded like sisters. Lia’s late father was of Franco-African heritage, which had blessed her with café au lait coloring and the bone structure of Nefertiti. She was recognized as the Pelican town beauty, which mortified her.
Lia smiled when she saw Maggie, who put her boxes down on a workbench. Hey. Whatcha got for me?”
Mugs, plates, mostly,” Maggie said. She had started a small side business making souvenirs that featured her artistic take on local landmarks. Instead of the historically accurate but dull illustrations usually featured on such mementos, hers were bold and modern. They had yet to generate a profit, but she took comfort in the fact that at least she was breaking even.
Lia reached into one of Maggie’s boxes and pulled out a black mug that featured a stylized white illustration of a dilapidated plantation. Oooh, I love this.”
My SOS seriesSave Our Structures. A portion of sales go to the historical society so we can save the buildings that are falling apart.” She pointed to the cup in Lia’s hand. That’s Grove Hall. If the Durands don’t do something with that place soon, there’s not gonna be anything left to save.” She then eyed the gift bag assembly. What exactly are you doing?”
A bride-to-be from Metairie ordered two hundred gris-gris bags for love as wedding favors.”
Maggie held up a silvery gauze bag imprinted with Brent and Carolyn: A Magical Evening.” What a great idea.”
Yes, you’ll have to remember that,” Lia said, grinning.
Maggie shook a finger at her. Nuh-uh. If my mother doesn’t get to nag me about marriage, you don’t either.”
Maggie joined the teens at the table, and Lia handed her a sharp knife and the ginger root. Maggie started chopping. As each bag was passed around the table, she dropped in a small piece of ginger as another love talisman.
So, you have a full house?” Lia asked as she carefully packed up completed gris-gris bags.
Happy to report, yes.” Maggie filled Lia in on the reservations. Lia suddenly shuddered, and Maggie gasped.