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By Sandra Hill Grand Central Publishing
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One It was dawn on Bayou Black, and its inhabitants were about to launch their daily musical extravaganza, a performance as beautiful and ancient as time.
The various sounds melded: a dozen different frogs, the splash of a sac-à-lait or bream rising for a tasty insect, the whisper of a humid breeze among the mossdraped oaks, the flap of an egret's wings as it soared out from a bald cypress branch. Even the silence had a sound. The only one not making any noise was its lone human inhabitant, John LeDeux.
But not for long.
About five hundred birds took flight at that shrill greeting, not to mention every snake, rabbit, raccoon, or gator within a one-mile radius.
John jackknifed up in bed and quickly pulled the sheet up to the waist of his naked body. He was in the single bedroom of his fishing camp, another name for a cabin on the bayou. He knew exactly who was yoohooing him. His ninety-two-year-old great aunt, Louise Rivard, better known as Tante Lulu. Who else in the world says "Yoo-hoo"?
He should have known better than to buy a place within a "hoot 'n' a holler" of his aunt's little cottage. She took neighborliness to new heights. And "hoot 'n' a holler"? Mon Dieu! I'm turning into Tante Lulu.
By the time the wooden screen door slammed, putting an exclamation mark on her entry, he'd already pulled on a pair of running shorts. He yawned widely as he walked into the living room, where his aunt was carrying two shopping bags of what appeared to be food. Not a good sign.
But this was his beloved aunt, the only one who'd been there for him and his brothers during some hard times. He'd never say or do anything to hurt her feelings. "What're you doin' here, chère? It's only six-thirty, and I don't have to report for work 'til ten." John was a detective with the police department in Fontaine, a sister city to Baton Rouge. It was a two-hour drive, and most nights he stayed in an efficiency apartment he rented in Baton Rouge, but some nights, like last night, he just wanted to be home, here in his raised cottage with its stilts halfsubmerged in the bayou stream he loved. It was located on Bayou Black, far enough away from Houma to still feel private but way too close to Tante Lulu.
"You gots bags under yer eyes, Tee-John," his aunt said, totally ignoring his question. Tee-John ... Little John ... was a nickname that had been given to him as a kid, way before he hit his six-foot-two.
She went into his small kitchen and was unloading her goodies. French bread, boudin sausage, eggs, beignets, red and green tomatoes, garlic, okra, butter, Tabasco sauce, and the holy trinity of southern cooking: celery, onions, and bell peppers. That was just from one bag. His small fridge would never hold all this crap.
"Yeah, I've got bags. I didn't get to bed 'til three."
"Tsk, tsk, tsk! Thass one of the reasons I'm here."
"Come sit you pretty self down, honey."
He sank down into a chair, breathing in deeply of the strong chicory coffee, which she'd already set to brewing.
Now she was whipping up what appeared to be an omelette with sides of sausage and fried green tomatoes. It would do no good to argue that he rarely ate before noon.
"I may be old, but I ain't dumb. Even here in the bayou, we hear 'bout all yer hanky-panky."
He grinned. "Do you see any hot babes here?"
"Hah! Thass jist 'cause I walked in on you las' month with that Morrison tart, buck naked and her squealin' like a pig. Ya prob'ly do yer hanky-panky elsewheres now."
"You got that right," he murmured.
"Why cain't ya find yerself a nice Cajun girl, Tee-John?"
Like they don't like hanky-panky as much as the next girl! "'Cause I'm not lookin', that's why. Besides, Jenny Morrison is not a tart."
His aunt put her hands on her tiny hips ... she was only five-foot-zero and ninety pounds sopping wet.
"Does she have yer ring on her finger?"
His eyes went wide. "Are you kidding? Hell, no!"
"Ya gonna marry up with the girl?"
"Hell, no!" he repeated.
She shrugged. "Well, then, yer a hound dog and she's a tart. Hanky-panky is only fer people in love who's gonna get married someday."
That was the Bible, according to Tante Lulu.
"Best I bring ya some more St. Jude statues."
She raised her eyebrows at his sharp tone.
"Sorry, but, come on, Auntie. I've got a St. Jude statue in my bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, porch, car, and office. There's St. Jude napkins and salt and pepper shakers here on the table, St. Jude pot holders by the stove, St. Jude wind chimes outside, a St. Jude birdbath, and God only knows what else."
"A person cain't have too many St. Judes."
St. Jude was the patron saint of hopeless causes and his aunt's favorite. She was going to heaven someday on St. Jude brownie points, if nothing else.
"I'm not that hopeless."
She patted his shoulder as she put a steaming mug of coffee in front of him on the table. "I know that, sweetie. Thass one of the reasons I'm here. I had a vision las' night."
He rolled his eyes. Here it comes.
"It mighta been a dream, but it felt like a vision. Charmaine says I should go ta one of those psychos." Charmaine was his half-sister and as psycho as they came.
"Psychics," he corrected.
"Thass what I said. Anyways, back ta my vision. Guess who's gettin' married this year?"
"Who?" He asked the question before he had a chance to bite his tongue.
"You," she chirped brightly.
He choked on his coffee and sprayed droplets all over the table.
She mopped it up with a St. Jude napkin.
"I'm too young, only twenty-eight," he protested. "Luc and Remy were thirty-three when they got married, and René was thirty-five. I got lots of time. What's the hurry?"
"The time is right fer different folks at different times."
"Any clue who the lucky lady will be?" he asked, deciding to go along with the nonsense. He wasn't even dating anyone steadily, and he for damn sure didn't know one single woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with.
She shook her head. "That wasn't clear, but it's gonna happen. The thunderbolt, she's a-comin'. Best ya be prepared." The thunderbolt she referred to was some screwball thunderbolt of love that she claimed hit the LeDeux men just before they met the loves of their lives.
"No way! And just to make sure, I'm buyin' a lightning rod before I go in to work today. Speaking of which, I've gotta take a shower. Can you put a hold on that breakfast for about fifteen minutes?"
"Oui, but first I gots ta tell ya my news."
"Oh?" The hairs stood up on the back of his neck. The last time she had news to announce, she'd popped a surprise wedding on his brother René. Or maybe it was the time she and Charmaine had entered a belly dancing contest. "I thought the vision was your news," he teased.
She smacked his arm with a wooden spoon. "Stop yer sass, boy. My news is that I hired Jinx, Inc. ta come ta Loo-zee-anna."
"The treasure hunting company? They're coming here?" John had worked twice for the New Jersey operation, which hired out to find lost treasures of any kind ... sunken shipwrecks, cave pearls, buried gold, lost objects, just about anything.
She nodded. "We's gonna hunt fer pirate treasure."
"On Bayou Black."
"Auntie." He sighed loudly. "There's no treasure here on Bayou Black."
"Well, not right here. Out past René's fishing camp. In fact, we's gonna use his camp fer our headquarters."
His jaw dropped. It wasn't the first time she'd mentioned this idea, but it boggled the mind that his aunt had convinced a reputable treasure salvaging company that there was pirate gold on Bayou Black.
"Too bad ya gots ta work. It should be fun."
"You're talkin' about Jean Lafitte, I suppose. Don't you know that treasure legend is bullsh ... uh, just that ... a legend?"
"We'll see. I gots clues what no one else has."
That is just great! Probably another vision. "How are you involved?" "I put up two hundred thousand dollars fer half the profits."
He inhaled sharply. "That's a lot of money."
His alarm must have shown because she shot back, "It's my money ta spend anyways I want."
He put up his hands in surrender. "Absolutely. When is this venture gonna start?"
"Okay. That's great, really. I wish you all the luck." That's what he said, but what he thought, standing under the shower a short time later, was, The bayou is never gonna be the same again, guaranteed! Immediately followed by, Treasure hunting is never gonna be the same after bein' hit by Tante Lulu. Talk about!
The menu at this nightclub was edible ... uh, incredible ...
Celine Arseneaux took a deep breath, then started across the crowded parking lot of the Playpen in suburban Baton Rouge, Louisiana, trying to ignore the fact that she was all tarted up like a high class call girl.
The get-up had been the bright idea of Bruce Cavanaugh, her editor at the New Orleans Times-Tribune, designed so that Celine would meld in the crowd at this upscale club, which provided sexual favors to both men and women, all run by the Lorenzo branch of the Dixie Mafia. Thus the black stiletto sling-backs, the sheer black silk hose, the black slip dress with red lace edging the bodice and hem, not to mention the flame red lipstick. Her shoulder-length boring brown hair had been blown and twisted into a wild curly mane. Normally, her idea of dressing up was new jeans, lip gloss, and a ponytail.
No way would she ever be confused for the awardwinning journalist she was. Nor would she be taken for the mother of a five-year-old child. Nope. She was a woman on the make for a little action ... illegal, paid-for action.
"I look like a Bourbon Street hooker," she'd complained to her fellow reporter, Jade Lewis, just a half hour ago as she'd helped plant the tape recorder inside her push-up bra and adjusted the tiny camera into the gold and rhinestone, rose-shaped brooch at the deep vee of her front. "I didn't even know I could have cleavage."
Jade had laughed. "Not a hooker. You look too high class for that. With the diamond post earrings and that brooch, you look like a bored, upper class gal with a wad of dough looking for Mister Studmuffin."
"A desperate housewife?"
"Something like that."
So now Celine walked up to the doorman, who resembled a pro-wrestler in a tux, and flashed the small card she'd been given for admission. Apparently, no one could enter the private premises unless they were with a member, or had obtained one of the cards ... cards which were impossible to obtain without careful vetting. How Bruce had obtained hers she didn't want to know.
The big bruiser studied the card, then stepped aside and held the door open for her. She could hear soft music up ahead ... no bump and grind sordid business here. A hostess, who could have passed for a runway model in a trendy culottes outfit, inquired, "Black, white, or blue?"
A light smile tugged at the hostess's lips. "First time here?"
"The black room is for men wanting to hook up with a woman. The white room is for women wanting to hook up with a man. And the blue room is for men and women, together, wanting to hook up with ... whatever."
At Celine's confused look, she elaborated, "Ménage à trois, honey."
Oh, good grief! Celine hoped she wasn't blushing. "White, please."
She wondered with a suppressed giggle how another reporter, Dane Jessup, was going to handle this situation when he did his part of the story tomorrow night. The gay male angle. Besides that, if Celine was a geek, Dane was dweeb to the max.
Soon she was seated at a small round table in the back of the room with an empty chair across from her. An inhouse phone sat in the center. There was subtle lighting and the atmosphere of an upscale bar, that image heightened by the soft rock being played by a two-piece band. No Chippendale style dancers here or bare-chested waiters. A female waitress in a perfectly respectable black uniform asked if she wanted a beverage. They only cost ten dollars a pop ... and that was for pop.
The ratio of men to women in the room was about five to one, with about two dozen women sitting at the various tables. Several were on the small dance floor with attractive men. Most of the men wore suits, or sport coats over khakis, or golf shirts tucked into pleated slacks. A few wore jeans, but they were combined with tucked-in, button-down dress shirts. No cowboys or construction workers. Subtlety again. Those men not partnered on the dance floor or at tables leaned against the two bars, nursing drinks. Or leaned against a far wall. A few glanced her way with interest.
It looked like a singles club. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad.
But then she opened the "menu" in front of her ... and felt like crawling under the table.
Welcome to the Playpen. We are here for your enjoyment. Please study the menu below. Then look around the room. If you see anyone you like, pick up the phone and indicate your choice. Only then will you be approached. If after talking to one of our men you change your mind, you can make another choice. Accommodations are upstairs, or off-site arrangements can be made. Good luck!
This was followed by a menu of services that were available ... very detailed descriptions ... with prices. She wasn't sure she even knew what some of these things were, and for sure there were some she'd never done or had any desire to do. Eeew!
After the waitress plopped her whiskey sour down on the table, and Celine had taken a big gulp, she braced herself. It was only pretend on her part. It was just a story. She'd done worse things to get a scoop. Well, no, she hadn't, but it was important that these outrageous activities be exposed. Especially since the Dixie Mafia was rumored to be involved.
Morphing into professional mode, she made mental notes of what she'd seen so far and decided she would "interview" three different men before making her escape following a trip to the ladies' room. Bruce might want her to take one of them upstairs, to see how it was done, but no way was she going that far. Pressing one of the roses in her brooch to launch the zoom lenses, she began a slow scan of the men from right to left.
Some of the prostitutes looked downright dangerous. Way too blatantly sexual for her tastes.
Okay, the young blond man would be her first. Extra long hair in a low ponytail. Clean cut. Wearing a light blue Oxford-collared shirt, tucked into dark blue chinos. He looked like a college student.
Then maybe the older gentleman with salt and pepper hair. Fiftyish. Well-built. Designer suit.
Third ... hmmm, she couldn't decide. She should probably invite the guy who looked like Tony from The Sopranos, if she had the nerve. Or the scowling man who was both homely and tempting as hell; rough sex, for sure.
She had her hand on the phone, about to request her first "date," when she noticed two men amble into the room laughing at some private joke. Her survey started to swing on a return scan, then doubled back.
Oh. My. God!
Could it be ...? No, it's impossible.
The tall man with dark hair, late twenties, wearing a black suit over a tight white silk T-shirt, stopped dead and was staring at her, too. Her camera took him in, which she intended to erase the moment she got home. Or maybe not.
This was an absolute nightmare. The worst possible thing that could have happened.
It was that slimebucket, oversexed, full-of-himself Cajun jerk. John LeDeux.
Whom she'd had a crush on as a girl and been hopelessly attracted to as a woman, despite her seeming intelligence. What was it about men like John LeDeux that caused women's IQs to nosedive? She had successfully avoided him for five long years. Why else would she have stayed in Texas for so long? What irony, to finally run into him, after being back here for only six months, in a ... a sex club.
If some higher power would just let a crack open in the floor, she would gladly jump in, assignment be damned.
He'd like to be on her menu, guar-an-teed! ...
John LeDeux ambled into the Playpen for his night shift.
The idea of him selling sex, or buying it for that matter, was ludicrous, but the dickhead managers of this place couldn't see past their cash registers. One hundred dollars for a blow job? I don't think so! I'm worth way more than that.
He scanned the room, looking for potential "customers." Then went stone cold still.
Well, well, well, lookee here. Celine Arseneaux, out to buy herself some action.
Was she that hard up? She always was a stick-up-theass prudish geek, too smart for her own good. Thought she was better than the rest of stupid mankind. Except for that one time that he barely recalled. She'd been hot damn non-geeky that night if his fuzzy recollection was accurate.
Excerpted from Wild Jinx by Sandra Hill Copyright © 2008 by Sandra Hill. Excerpted by permission.
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