Read an Excerpt
A Sarah Booth Delaney Story
By Carolyn Haines
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Carolyn Haines
All rights reserved.
"Sarah Booth Delaney, leave that man alone and let him sleep. That's the most healin' thing for him."
I dared not turn around and confront Jitty, the dead woman who haunts my ancestral home and my life. Jitty is many things to me, most of them loving. But she is also a major pain in the butt.
"I like to watch him breathe," I told her. It's pointless to argue with a haint, but I do it out of habit. Jitty claims the wisdom of the Great Beyond, which makes her a real know-it-all. Except she didn't warn me that my last case would result in my fiancé, Graf Milieu, nearly getting his leg shot off. At last he's been released from the hospital and is resting peacefully at Dahlia House. Let the healing begin.
Jitty spoke directly into my ear. "Doc says to let him rest, so let him rest. Need I point out that you can't sleep when I hover over you?"
"Because you're dead, Jitty. Few people enjoy a dead person hovering."
"Below the belt, Sarah Booth. Speaking of belt, what do you think of my get-up?"
I steeled my nerve to confront my fashionista haint. She hopped decades, went from designer diva to bag lady, and all in a perfect size 2. Two things about being dead — she never aged and never gained weight.
"Oh, dear, God." I couldn't believe it. Jitty wore a silver swimsuit outfit with a huge black belt and the biggest, gaudiest buckle I'd ever seen. I leaned in closer. "International Female Wrestler, 2025," I read. "2025?"
"I can have the title in the future if I want it." Jitty spun to show off her ripped abs and rock-hard glutes. "Just think, Sarah Booth. In ten years I won't be a day older and all of your eggs will be withered and black."
"Oh, for Pete's sake, give it a rest." She was always on me to reproduce so she could have a Delaney heir to haunt. I was the last of the line, and she was getting on my last nerve. "Go torment some other poor soul."
"Not a chance. You're my mortal, and you just have to put up with me."
My cell phone vibrated against my hip and I took the opportunity to leave the bedroom where Graf slept. When I was in the hall, I answered the call of Coleman Peters, the sheriff of Sunflower County, Mississippi.
"How's Graf?" Coleman asked.
"He's resting. The doctor says he has a good chance of recovering use of his leg. Only time will tell." I tried to keep the emotion out of my voice. Graf's injury was serious. If his leg didn't heal properly, his career as a movie star would be over.
"And how's Sarah Booth doing?"
"Feel up to taking on a small local case?" he asked. "Little effort, big paycheck."
"Did Tinkie put you up to this?" Tinkie Bellcase Richmond was my partner in Delaney Detective Agency. When Graf was shot, I'd considered abandoning my career as a private eye. The work could be dangerous, and when it affected the people I loved, I had to think about quitting.
"Nope, this just came in the door, and I thought of you."
I knew I should say no, but curiosity was one of my greatest flaws. "What kind of case?"
"Remember Curtis Jensen and his wife, Lovey?"
"How could I forget?" Jensen was the spokesperson for the Return Our Values Entirely (ROVE) group, which advocated spankings for children and wives, public stocks for moral offenders, and a host of other regressive punishments for those deemed "without moral rectitude or with bad attitudes." Jensen had built up a power base in the Mississippi Delta, and then created a scandal that titillated the county for weeks when he up and married a porn star. "What's going on with the Jensens?"
"Lovey Jensen claims she has a stalker."
"Isn't that a job for the sheriff?" I asked.
"Not when the information comes from Miss Jasmine, a Memphis psychic — and don't think I don't respect the abilities of our mutual friend, Tammy Odom. Miss Jasmine is a fraud, though, and Lovey is a paranoid. She sees this man that no one else sees, but Miss Jasmine has convinced her that her life is in danger."
"And you want me to do what?"
"If you take the case, keep an eye on her for a while and prove that no one is stalking her, except maybe her guilty conscience. Curtis and Lovey prey on the ignorant and the poor. That man has built an empire on telling men they're superior to women and pointing the finger of guilt at people. I heard he was getting pretty good bribery payments from men who wanted to keep their misdeeds out of the public eye. I would think if anyone were in danger, it might be Curtis."
Coleman wasn't a man who judged others harshly, but the Jensens had obviously gotten under his skin. "You're sure this isn't real?"
"Lovey calls up here all the time trying to get me to go out to their place. Before the stalker it was an alien aircraft landing behind their meeting hall, which turned out to be kids on four-wheelers making a mess. The time before that it was a rabid skunk, which was a black-and-white cat with a litter of kittens. Thank goodness I found homes for all of them. Lovey just didn't want to be bothered."
I was beginning to see his point. "Okay. I'll give her a call."
He gave me the number and I checked on Graf before I called my partner.
"We're going to work for Lovey Jensen?" Tinkie asked in a tone between glee and outrage. "What will people say?"
Tinkie could pretend all she wanted that she was worried about her position as Sunflower County's Number One Daddy's Girl, but I knew differently. She was chomping at the bit to get after this case and poke into Lovey's sordid history. "Why don't we give her a call and see what's what."
Forty minutes later, with my ear throbbing and my brain buzzing, I had no details of the stalker but a vast knowledge of the social slights paid to Lovey, according to Lovey. Tinkie rolled her eyes at me. "Talking to that woman is like having a woodpecker drill into your brain and peck it out bit by bit."
I couldn't disagree, but Lovey was offering a substantial retainer for what would ultimately be a job of following her around to see if anyone else was following her around. "Easy money."
"And we get to hang out with the beautiful people," Tinkie deadpanned. "Let's talk to her in person. I heard they redecorated that hideous sprawl they call home. I've been dying to see it. If we can snap some photos, Cece will dance at your wedding." Cece Dee Falcon was our journalist friend who ran the society pages of the Zinnia Dispatch. And she was so much more — the best investigative reporter in the Southeast and a woman who stood up for herself and her beliefs.
I made the sign of the cross with my forefingers. "Enough! Let me leave Graf a note and the phone."
* * *
The Jensen estate had once been a gracious old creole-style plantation home on several thousand acres. When Curtis was bitten by the jet-set bug, he sold his property and remodeled the house. While touches of grace and elegance remained, South Eden, as he had renamed it, was an unhappy blend of modern lighting, old brick, and Japanese gardens with fountains, wind chimes, and lots and lots of cacti. In the back was a beige-colored tin "meeting hall."
The house was set back from the road along a winding driveway. A small, exclusive neighborhood had developed around the Jensen house. There were neighbors, just not close ones.
Curtis and Lovey were deep into some newfangled religion that advocated extreme wealth was a sign God loved them. The more God loved you, the more money he gave you. Manifest Spiritual Destiny.
"I'm surprised the sidewalk isn't cobbled out of gold brick," I whispered to Tinkie as we stood on the porch.
"Or gold lame."
I didn't get a chance for a comeback because a butler opened the door. Coleman had paved the way for us, so we were swooped past a gallery of Jensen family paintings.
"So good of you to come." Lovey Jensen met us with an extended hand as limp and cool as a dead fish.
"Why would anyone stalk you, Lovey?" I got right down to business.
She looked around, as if she feared someone eavesdropping. "It may be a party from my past."
"A person you did wrong?" Tinkie asked.
"Whatever do you mean?" Lovey was quick to take offense. "I've never done anyone wrong."
"Someone who cared for you and you didn't return the feelings, someone you bumped out of a job, someone involved in a money deal that you and Curtis scammed?" Tinkie wasn't playing softball.
"I'm not that kind of girl. Besides, my film career has been over since I married Curtis. I'm nothing more than an obedient housewife. If I disobey, Curtis spanks me."
I wasn't going there. Not for any amount of money. "You left the porn industry two years ago?" I was making notes.
"Yes, and I was at the top of my game. The Candy Cane Pole was my highest-grossing film. Men just went wild for that little elf suit. Go figure."
"No jealous actresses after your hide?"
"Of course not." She pulled an electronic cigarette out of her cleavage and puffed away.
"So what makes you worthy of stalking?" I asked.
She shook her head and fear crept into her eyes. "I don't know. Curtis and I lead a very retiring life. We're involved in organizations focused on bringing this country back to God. Instilling obedience in wayward wives and children. Who could argue with that?"
"Curtis's methods are a bit controversial," I noted.
"So stalk him! I'm just his wife."
She made a good point, but not one helpful to our investigation.
"Look, Lovey, Tinkie and I are going to tail you for a week or so. See if we can find out who's following you. Could be a secret admirer or something that simple."
"Or it could be your imagination." Tinkie spoke with a smile, but it was a strike at the heart of what she obviously saw as Lovey's delusions. I couldn't figure out what was eating my partner. Normally she was the cool, calm, and collected one.
"It isn't my imagination." Lovey showed only calm resolve.
"So tell us what you've seen." I prepared to write in my PI notebook.
"Well, last night I was coming home from my dance class and there was a man standing out on the street near the parking lot where I'd parked my car. He was just standing there. I hurried to my car and drove away. This car fell in right behind me and followed me all the way home. If I stopped, it stopped. If I drove fast, it followed. But when I turned into my driveway, it sped away."
It did sound like a stalker.
"Did you get a look at the guy?"
"It was like an old Bogey movie. Fedora and trench coat. In August. That's sick."
"Maybe he was a zombie," Tinkie threw in. "You know, no temperature control needed for the dead."
I aimed a kick at her instep but she eluded me.
"Do you think you're better than I am?" Lovey took the battle to Tinkie's weak side. Of all the things Tinkie abhorred, it was someone with advantages who looked down on others.
Lovey arched her eyebrows and said nothing.
"You're fabulously wealthy. You have more money than I do."
"And you're a hypocrite. You think because I used to make porn movies that I'm not as good as you. That I don't deserve to be safe in my own home or my town. That somehow what I did for a living has made it okay for someone to stalk me and scare me and maybe hurt me."
I couldn't let this go on another second. Tinkie looked gut-shot. "No, Lovey, that's not what Tinkie meant."
"Then what —"
Tinkie had regained her cool. "Enough about you. Tell us more about the stalker."
Lovey was nobody's fool. She eyed Tinkie with suspicion. "You're going to take the case?"
"Yes," Tinkie said. "You're right. If someone is terrorizing you, you deserve protection. I was out of line."
"Like I said, the man looked like he was out of a noir movie. Creepy. Curtis tells me it's my imagination, but it isn't. Someone is after me."
"We're on the case," I said. "We'll keep an eye on you, Mrs. Jensen, and if anyone is following you, we'll find out who it is and what they want."
"I feel better already." She walked us to the door, pulling a check with an impressive number of zeros, all in a line, from her cleavage.
* * *
Tinkie took the first shift and I went home to make Graf soup. He was alert and hungry, and I played poker with him until he fell asleep. He'd been given hefty pain medication and Doc had warned me that he'd sleep for the better part of the next few days. As Jitty had insisted, sleep was the most healing thing he could do.
When I returned to the Jensen property, I found Tinkie parked beneath a beautiful old pecan tree, binoculars and a camera on the front seat. "So far, nada," she said. "I think she's playing the victim to get attention."
"As long as she's paying our fee, do we care?" It was a rare role reversal for me to be the pragmatic one in the partnership.
"There's something not right here." Tinkie was like a dog with a bone.
"Again, do we care?"
"I don't like being used by Lovey Jensen. Or anyone else."
I heard her, but my attention was on a man walking down the side of the road. He'd come out of nowhere, a silhouette in a fedora and trench coat. He stopped beneath the one streetlight and lit a cigarette.
"Am I seeing things?" Tinkie grabbed the camera and started snapping. "Is he real?"
"Looks to be." Then again, Jitty often looked real. Corporeal, which she was not.
He stood nonchalantly under the streetlight and smoked his cigarette. He threw the butt on the shoulder of the road, then walked toward the drive leading to the Jensen home.
"Should we stop him?" Tinkie asked.
"No, let's see what he's up to."
We exited the car and started after him. Just as quickly as he'd appeared, he disappeared. He stepped out of the light and vanished. We searched the driveway all the way to the house but there was no indication of where he had gone. I got the car and retrieved Tinkie so we could pursue him, but we never heard a car motor. There was no sign of anyone at all, only the crickets and the heavy mantle of the star-studded sky. The foliage was so thick near the side of the road, he could be twenty feet away and completely hidden from us.
"This is creepy."
"Looks as if Lovey wasn't lying," I said.
"I should feel guilty for giving her a hard time, but I don't." Tinkie had a real issue with the Jensens.
"I'll call her and let her know. At least we've got the photos of him."
"Right." Tinkie picked up the camera and checked through the shots. "I've captured him but the lighting is so poor and the image so grainy, it won't do us much good."
"Except to prove to Coleman someone really is hanging around the Jensen property."
We sat for half an hour longer, but the September night was still and quiet, except for the singing frogs and crickets. Not even a breeze rustled the tree leaves. I checked my watch. I'd been gone for nearly two hours.
"Sarah Booth, we don't actually have to sit out here in the dark, you know."
Tinkie whipped out her iPad. She embraced technology, something I simply couldn't get a grip on. "Lovey is either a genius at misdirection or an idiot. She posts on Facebook every time she goes to the bathroom. Here's her agenda. She's staying in tonight, then has Pilates at seven a.m. tomorrow and she is going to wear her Lana Lime see-through yoga pants, then on to the salon for a mani-pedi and waxing, et cetera, et cetera. We can pick up her trail whenever we want."
I pondered the wisdom of posting such a wealth of personal information — especially for a woman who feared being stalked. "And so can anyone else. This is unbelievable."
"The first adjective I would use for Lovey in almost any circumstance."
Tinkie racked up another point.
"Let's go home." My concern for Graf outweighed my concern for Lovey, who seemed determined to put herself in harm's way.
* * *
Dahlia House was ablaze with lights. I made my way down the sycamore-lined drive, remembering the times my parents had thrown dinner parties or gatherings and the house had glowed with warm and inviting lights. The evening heat was dissipating and when I crossed the porch, I heard male laughter. Graf and Harold Erkwell, a treasured friend, shared a moment of humor.
Sweetie Pie's mournful bay and the gravelly bark of Roscoe, Harold's dog, clued me in to the antics taking place upstairs. When I entered Graf's bedroom, I found Roscoe jumping back and forth over Sweetie's back at Harold's command.
Excerpted from Shorty Bones by Carolyn Haines. Copyright © 2014 Carolyn Haines. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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