Read an Excerpt
There is something about warm soil that connects the past and future into the present. The earth is female in the truest sense of the word. Life springs from it. It is the power of the feminine, the base of creation. For a Delaney, land is the source of family and heritage. For me, Sarah Booth Delaney, the last of this old Southern family, the rich soil of the Mississippi Delta holds the promise of seed and growththe fecundity that my own womb has been denied. Or at least denied for the moment.
The black soil was rich and damp beneath my fingers as I turned the earth with the trowel. Gardening isn't one of my passions. In fact, this was my first attempt. But I had been inspired by a master gardener's words, and the pull of a hot March sun on this Monday morning had been irresistible. Beneath my gentle hands, the ten containers of various herbs would sprout into lush health. I might not be Mother Nature, but I was apprenticing as one of her daughters.
In this new venture, I was aided by my heritage. Dahlia House has some of the best topsoil in the world. Anything can grow here. And I had the books of the late Lawrence Ambrose to guide me.
I picked up a plastic container, checking to see that it was lemon basil. I held it aloft, asking the sun to power it to a huge shrub, a Godzilla lemon basil! Holding the basil and my trowel aloft, I felt the power of a gardening goddess. I would yield a crop! And I would never go hungry again!
"Girl, you holdin' that hand spade like Xena about to be struck by lightning. What's got you out here in the hot sun grubbin' around in the dirt like Mr. Green Jeans?"
I lowered the sacred vessel of basil and my trowel and looked into the dark-chocolate eyes of my nemesis and companion, Jitty. Lucky for the rest of the world, Jitty afflicts only me. She's a ghost. An old ghost with a streak of bossiness a mile wide.
"I'm planting an herb garden, if you must know." I knelt back in the earth, searching again for the sense of power and strength that had evaporated.
"Get you a sun hat. You thirty-three. Almost thirty-four. If you let that sun beat down on you, your neck's gone go all crepey an' look just like puckered chicken skin. You ain't got but a few good years left. You better preserve what you can."
Jitty took a seat on an overturned bucket. Rocking back on my heels I looked at her. Her skin was a smooth milk-chocolate, and it covered a body that curved and swelled in all the right places. Death might not be a pleasant experience, but ghosthood had some definite advantages. She would never age, while I would plump and wither, depending on which stage of decline I happened to be in.
"Gardening is good for you," I said, knowing that logic would never work on Jitty. She was obsessed with one thing and one thing onlygetting an heir for Dahlia House so she could continue to reside in the old plantation once I "passed." Prospects for continuing the line weren't looking encouraging.
"What would be good for you would be a little horizontal exercise." Jitty nodded knowingly.
"Lawrence said gardening relieves stress and gives a sense of satisfaction. We'll also have wonderful spices and seasonings to cook with."
Jitty raised one delicate eyebrow. "Cook? You good at fruitcakesthe kind you make and the kind you attract. Listen to me, Sarah Booth, time is runnin' out. Better you figure out how to sprout you a baby and leave the plants to someone else." She stood up and I was shocked to see that she was wearing baggy sweatpants and a sleeveless T-shirt. My pants and shirt. "I got us a plan."
"No!" Whatever it was, it was going to be humiliating for me.
"It's a good one."
"No!" She was scaring me.
"Just listen to it. I've got it all figured out. Right here from the safety of Dahlia House" She suddenly turned her head. "We'll discuss this later. Company's comin'."
Before I could get off my knees to argue with her, I heard the sound of a car pulling into the drive. Instead of stopping at the front, the sleek brown patrol car pulled to the backyard and Coleman Peters, Sunflower County sheriff, stepped into the March sun.
Tall and lanky, Coleman walked up and rested a booted foot on the landscape timber that marked one boundary of my herb garden. I noted that his boots were worn but polished. Coleman was like that. He took care of things. It was one of his nicest qualities.
"Well, well, Sarah Booth, I didn't know you were a gardener."
Brushing my dirty hands on my jeans, I slowly rose. "I read Lawrence Ambrose's herb book. I thought I'd give it a try. He claims herbs are easy to grow."
Coleman's doubtful expression made me survey the ground I'd trenched by hand. It was still a little weedy.
"I'm delivering a message," he said. His blue eyes were hidden by shades, but his mouth let me know that it was, indeed, bad news.
"I'm flattered. Personal delivery by the top law enforcement official of Sunflower County," I said. "I'm all ears." My attempt at lightheartedness fell flat.
"Lee McBride is down at the jail. She's asking for you." His delivery was completely without inflection.
I was struck by a vivid memory of Eulalee McBride astride a powerful gray stallion, her red hair flying out behind her. She reminded me of a Viking princess. We'd known each other since first grade.
"What's up with Lee?" I tried to keep it casual.
"She's confessed to the murder of her husband, Kemper Fuquar."
Coleman acted like he was on Dragnet. Just the facts, ma'am.
"She killed her husband?" Repeating bad news is a Daddy's Girl tactic to elicit a response from the other party to see exactly what reaction is expected.
I sat down on the landscape timber by Coleman's leg and tried to think. Kemper Fuquar had never been on my list of favorite people. He was handsome and charming and entirely worthless. Sure, he looked like Zorro on a horsedashing and stylishbut there had always been an edge to the man. I didn't run with the horsey set, so my exposure to Kemper had been limited. But the few times I'd been around him, he'd made me ill-at-ease.
"Did she say why she killed him?" I asked. The sun was hot on my back but I didn't want to move. Coleman faced the light, giving me the advantage. I felt I needed it. There was something distinctly odd in Coleman's stiff behavior.
"Lee needs a good lawyer. Maybe you can make her see that. She knows her rights, but she isn't paying much attention to them."
"Did she do it?" I asked him.
Coleman lifted his shades and finally looked at me. "It isn't my job to determine guilt or innocence. That's for a jury."
I knew then I was walking on delicate territory. I just didn't know why. Coleman was a professional, but he'd known Lee for as long as I had. Because of Lee's interest in horses and the outdoors, she'd been close friends with many of the boys, including Coleman.
"Lee confessed to the murder?" I asked, going back to a safe question to which I knew the answer.
"She came in this morning and turned herself in."
"How was he killed?"
Coleman cleared his throat. "It was a bad scene. She said she hit him in the head with something, but it's hard to tell."
"A head wound sounds pretty definite."
"Not after the body's been trampled by a fourteen-hundred-pound horse. There wasn't a solid bone left in him, Sarah Booth."
The Sunflower County jail jutted off the east side of the courthouse, an old wing of crumbling red bricks that was an architectural eyesore and looked incapable of holding any serious felons. I'd been inside once before, and I knew it wasn't a place of sunshine and light. Maybe that was what depressed me when I saw Lee sitting on the blue-ticked mattress. She'd always been a creature of the sun and of action, her red hair flaming and her green eyes burning. The woman in the cell had not heard us approach, and her posture registered defeat. Coleman hesitated a moment and then stepped back several feet.
"Eulalee," I said softly, wanting to alert her to my approach. She instantly straightened, once again becoming the undefeatable Viking princess, the slender girl who'd turned her back on inheriting a fortune to follow her dream.
"I knew you'd come, Sarah Booth. I don't have any money and I know a private investigator costs a good bit, but once I'm out of here, there's money coming down the road. By next year, Avenger will be bringing in the stud fees that will put Swift Level in the black." She hesitated a split second. "Can you wait?"
Her green eyes held worry and resignation. In the past few years I'd seen her only a handful of times, and I remembered that she'd been injured on almost every occasion. Horses were dangerous animals. Even when playing, they were capable of inflicting serious damage.
"Money isn't the issue," I lied. Money was always an issue with me as I hung on to Dahlia House by scheming plots and Irish luck. Still, I was more than a little surprised by Lee's blunt admission of financial straits. Lee ran a full-scale breeding and training operation at Swift Level, and it was the home of the very glamorous Chesterfield Hunt. The spit-and-polish, gleaming-white-fence elegance was splashed all over Cece Dee Falcon's society pages during hunt season. There were foxhunts, elaborate hunt breakfasts, hunt balls, hunt blessingsall requiring boodles of money.
"Money isn't the problem, here," Coleman said. He was at my side, and he spoke to me, not Lee. "The trouble is that Lee's confessed. You can't help her, Sarah Booth, as long as she insists that she killed him."
Lee looked at him, a long look that held regret and sorrow and sympathy. "I'd like to speak with Sarah Booth alone," she said.
"Talk to her, Lee, then shut up. And get a lawyer. A good one. Boyd Harkey might"
"No lawyer! I can manage this myself. Sarah Booth is all I need. If she'll help me, I'll be okay."
Coleman's left eyebrow arched up half an inch and spoke volumes of his opinion on that. He said nothing, just turned and left the jail. Lee and I were alone.
"I've made a real mess of things," she said. With Coleman gone, she relaxed her shoulders and I saw how thin she'd become. She had always been lean, but her body was not so sharply defined that it looked as if her shoulder blades might cut through her blouse.
"You want to tell me about it?"
"There's not much to tell. Not much that will make a difference. Right now my concern is for Kip." She bit her lip hard enough to whiten it, and it was sheer willpower that dammed her tears. "I'm worried about her. Will you look out for her until I get out? It's a lot to ask, I know. She's a difficult child. She's smart. Sometimes I think she's too smart. And she's been through a lot. Way too much for a child her age. Could you take her, just for a while?"
"You want her to stay with me?" I wasn't known as the nurturing type.
"Just for a little while."
"I'm dead to them."
I'd heard that Lee was estranged from her parents. The gossip around town went that Lee had been disinherited shortly after she'd returned to Zinnia from Lafayette, Louisiana. She'd come home pregnant and married to Kemper. Shortly after Kip's birth, Auralee and Weston McBride had moved to Italy. They hadn't returned to Zinnia in fourteen years. Talk was that they'd never even seen their only granddaughter.
Lee's attention was focused on the jail floor, a dirty gray cement. "Kip needs someone to watch her. In many ways, she's a very special child. She's also angry, about a lot of things."
"I don't know anything about kids, Lee."
She finally looked at me. "With Kip, it wouldn't matter if you did. She's not exactly your average teenager." She paced to the end of the cell.
Baby-sitting a teenager wasn't exactly how I saw my career as a private eye developing. I was about to decline when she spoke again.
"There's no one else I can trust to do this. Kip needs someone tough. Someone she can't manipulate or run over. You can manage her, Sarah Booth. Will you?"
"Okay. Now tell me what happened," I said, glad to shift the focus, at least for a while.
Lee shrugged. "Kemper and I got into it last night. He was drinking and he slapped me around." She began pacing the cell. "That was always the preliminary to a real beating. A few slaps. Then it could go either way. Sex or a beating. Lately Kemper seemed to favor beating me more than screwing me."
She swung around to face me, and I was stopped by the haunted aspect of her features. Shadows seemed to dance in her eyes. She shrugged. "I went down to the barn. Kip had told me that Avenger had a loose nail in a shoe. With Kemper drunk and mean, I decided to try to stay out of his way. He seldom went in the stallion barn. He hated Avenger, and the horse returned the sentiment."
Her voice was shaky, but she kept talking. "I had Avenger's front hoof in my hand. The nail was going to have to be snipped off and the shoe reset the next morning, when I could call the farrier. The nail was too dangerous to leave, so I had the nippers so I could cut the head off."
She wet her lips. "Avenger tensed, and I looked up. Kemper was standing in the barn aisle. He walked over to the wall and picked up a riding crop. Then that smile came over his face. The bastard looked right at me, smiling like he did when he was going to do something cruel, and he said, 'Come on out here. I'm going to beat you within an inch of your life, and then I'm going to work on that horse.' "
She turned away abruptly so that she spoke in profile to me. "Avenger was going crazy, so I stepped out into the aisle. He started hitting me across the back. During the past few weeks, he'd gotten meaner and meaner, but this time he acted like he meant to kill me." She rubbed her forehead with one hand, shielding her eyes. "I'm so ashamed for you to know how we lived. It was so sick."