The Devil's Bones

A Sarah Booth Delaney Mystery

Carolyn Haines

The Devil's Bones

CHAPTER 1

There’s nothing like springtime in the Deep South, especially lower Mississippi. The counties warmed by the coastal breezes off the Gulf of Mexico spring to life with a palette that takes my breath away. When it comes to the season of showy flowers, the southernmost counties are floozies with a celebrated taste for riotous blooms. The Delta, in the center and northern part of the state, has a vastness, a sense of eternity, that is a special beauty. But down in George County, the landscape is alive with those gay and frivolous blossoms. The azaleas, wisteria, Chinese fringe trees, mimosas, bottlebrush, tulip trees, and the first windings of coral crossover vines put on a show. Color pops in a range from vivid purple to orange, coral, pink, lavender, carmine, and white.

At the super exclusive and isolated Bexley B&B, where I am spending the weekend, towering banks of shrubs scale over eight feet tall. “Fancy ladies” was the term Aunt Loulane used to describe the riot of azaleas. Landscaped with bridal wreath, dogwoods, and amaryllis blooms, this is a magical place. I could easily imagine fairies hiding about the grounds. I think of the Easters of my childhood with a bittersweet pang. Vivid memories of egg hunts, chocolate bunnies, and Easter dresses.

It’s almost dusk as I wander through the gardens of the B&B near the small town of Lucedale in the southeast corner of my state. I inhale the fragrance of wisteria and nostalgia floods me. What I wouldn’t give to be a child again, safe in my parents’ care, excited that while I sleep the Easter bunny will visit and gift me with colorful eggs and candy.

I leave the sweet scent of the flowers behind and walk under the spreading live oaks that drip with Spanish moss. There is so much to love and cherish in my home state. So much beauty. And somehow Tinkie, who has arranged this very special and celebratory girls’ weekend, has found the perfect spot.

The Bexley B&B is built on the grounds of what had been a settlement structure that housed a general store, post office, doctor’s office, and railway ticket station. Constructed from heart of pine lumber cut from virgin timber and taken to the local sawmill, the B&B has defied more than a hundred years of humidity, hurricanes, and hapless renovations. Now that Donna and Frank Dickerson have taken it over, the grand old lady is back—and vibrantly so. I turn around to glance at the inn as the lights begin to wink on. Surrounded by the graceful limbs of the oak trees wrapped in white fairy lights, I half expect Tinker Bell to show.

“Pray, hide me from the god who desires to take me underground and ravage me.”

I spin around to face a beautiful woman in a toga and sandals. A crown of dahlias rests on her head and long blond hair streams down her back. Fear animates her lovely features and heightens her agitated breathing.

“Who are you?”

“My name matters not. If you do not act, I will be a live woman swept into the realm of the night lord, the ruler of the dead, and there I will be forced to live for the six long, dark months of the year. Please, help me. I cannot allow him to catch me.”

I don’t know who this guest is, but I’m pretty sure she’s lost her rudder. This mini-vacation was too good to be true. Now I discover we’re lodging in a lunatic asylum that Tinkie has booked under the pretense of being a spa.

“Good luck.” I start walking, as fast as I can, back to the inn that glitters in the distance.

“Please, kind stranger. Protect me. Pluto comes when the final light dies, and he will make me his bride to sit at his side in Hades. I cannot endure another season as his queen, ruling over the dead. I am young and wish to live above.”

My cat’s name is Pluto, a beautiful black beast that’s smarter than most people. He is indeed named for the god the ancient Greeks believed ruled the land of the dead. I slow. I know this woman—or I know of her. “Persephone?” I’m not surprised that the maiden who returns to Earth every spring after spending fall and winter in the land of the dead should appear at Easter. Hers is also a resurrection story.

“Yes, can you find my mother to protect me? Please, I am begging you.”

I’m a pretty good private investigator, but I’m not up to the task of tracking down a goddess from the Greek pantheon. And this was no lowly demigod but a fullblown goddess. Persephone is the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. In other words, she’s no one to mess with.

“Look, I have my own mother issues,” I tell her. “I wish I could help but I can’t.”

“You mighty quick to run away from a challenge.” She gives me the stink eye.

That stops me in my tracks. For all of her toga, sandals, and noble bearing, she raises a red alert. I smell a rat!

Jitty, the resident haint of my family home in Sunflower County, has hitchhiked all the way down to Lucedale with me. And she was having some kind of fun at my expense. “Jitty! What are you up to? Better yet, what are you doing here?”

“I’m here making sure you’re an honest woman. You and that pack of divas you run with could be looking for trouble.”

Jitty adores Tinkie and Cece, so she is definitely up to something else. “I’m on vacation. You’re always telling me to relax, unwind. Remember, stress is a real ovary killer, and god knows if my ovaries croak I’ll be of no use to you.” Jitty has two goals in life—to torment the snot out of me and to get me with child so she has a Delaney heir to haunt.

“Your ovaries are dying all on their own. It’s called Spinsterhood! You can’t blame that on me. You’re humping it hard toward thirty-five, still unwed and unbred. You’d think you were some high-strung Thoroughbred the way your body rejects pregnancy.”

I held up a hand to stop that talk in its tracks. “Watch yourself.”

Her grin told me how unafraid she was of my threats. “You left that hot man all alone in a town filled with hungry, single women. Not a smart move, cupcake.”

“Coleman is grown. And besides, he needs some time on his own, too.” I truly had no worries about Coleman Peters, my lover. He was true blue and a law-and-order man. He was also the sheriff of Sunflower County. “If Coleman gets up to no good, I’ll get phone calls from at least a dozen people.”

She didn’t argue that fact and moved on. “Spring is the renewal, Sarah Booth. For you and everyone. In the natural world, this is the time for pregnancies, and you are wasting it here by yourself on an evening so beautiful it’s a cryin’ shame Coleman isn’t here to share it.”

I wouldn’t mind a rendezvous with Coleman, but I would never admit it to Jitty. I remained stubbornly silent.

“That partner of yours is glowing. Think about that. If you had a baby, the little Toscar, or maybe Tinkos, as I’m going to call it, would practically be cousins with your little Deters! Even better, they could grow up to marry and then there would be plenty of money to restore Dahlia House.”

“Back off!” Jitty was getting way over her skis on this. “Besides, if they’re raised as cousins, marriage would be kind of icky.”

“You’re too literal, girl. Just too literal.”

“Let Tinkie have this time of joy without interference or interruption. She’s wanted this for so long.”

Tinkie, after years of being told she was medically unable to have a child, was finally pregnant. She was aglow with her baby potential. Her husband, Oscar, walked around town like a preening peacock. I couldn’t say if her unlikely pregnancy was actually the result of a spell cast by the Harrington sister witches or if rescuing her pregnant cousin and delivering the child had kicked her Fallopian tubes into action. Maybe it was simply a very strong and lucky little swimmer that made it past the scar tissue and landed on her egg. It didn’t matter. The reason for our girls’ weekend was to celebrate this joyful beginning to new life, something I’d wished for Tinkie for a long time.

“Jitty, why are you running around as Persephone?”

Jitty waved a hand around her. “Look at this beauty, this renewal, this celebration of life returning. Easter is the perfect resurrection story, but so is Persephone. We all long for redemption and resurrection.”

She was right about that.

She looked pensive. “You know I came here to go to the sunrise service over at the miniature Holy Land. Sarah Booth, do you realize the responsibility that goes with bringing a child into this world and teaching her values?”

“Her? Tinkie is going to have a girl?” I did a little dance. Jitty had let it slip! She’d given me an answer from the Great Beyond that was top secret. “She wants a girl. She doesn’t say that out loud, but I know it. Oh, this is wonderful!”

“Hush!” She leaned in and looked around as she began to morph slowly into the mocha-skinned ghost that was my nemesis and savior. “Keep your lips zipped, Sarah Booth. I shouldn’t have said that. It’s against the rules.”

I had a real impulse to make hay with Jitty’s indiscretion, but I didn’t. She was my anchor to the past and the future, and the rules of the Great Beyond were strictly enforced. I would never risk having her get in trouble. The celestial power brokers might take her away from me.

I hit upon a sensible solution. “Tinkie could have an ultrasound to determine the sex, but she won’t. She and Oscar want to wait.”

“Then don’t breathe a word.” Jitty frowned with great concentration, like she was going to intimidate me into silence.

“I won’t tell her because she doesn’t want to know. And because I don’t want you to get in trouble.”

She sighed. “Okay. Then it’s no big secret for you to know that I’m here to help Tinkie find the right path for her baby. She’s afraid she’ll pick wrong and not give the baby the proper religious instruction. I’ll just prod her along the path.”

I’d been a regular Sunday School girl until my parents died. After that, I refused to go to church for any reason and Aunt Loulane didn’t make me. She had enough battles to fight and she let that one slide. My approach to life had come not from a specific religion but from watching the ethical way my parents lived their lives. They’d instilled a set of values in me that functioned as my dayto-day manual of conduct. Tinkie had her Daddy’s Girl rule book, and I had my memories.

“Tinkie will figure this out. She feels like this baby is a special gift. She only wants to be sure she does everything she can to give her baby a happy foundation. And she will. No matter if the child decides on Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Jainism, Shinto, Confucianism, Taoism, or Sikhism.” I named off the great religions of the world. I’d done my final literature research paper on this subject at Ole Miss, and I’d been astounded at the similarities among most of the great religions. The loss of my parents had shaken my entire belief system, and I was searching, even then, for something to grasp onto.

“I just don’t want to see her go nuts and join some kind of cult.” Jitty no longer wore a toga. Instead she sported a colorful sarong that was a fine complement to the bank of fuchsia azaleas she stood beside.

“Tinkie? Join a cult? Who are you kidding? What cult do you know that serves all organic, gourmet food with no pesticides or toxins, gives foot massages, rubs her belly, and talks baby talk to it? She has the Order of Oscar Who Waits on Her Hand and Foot! That’s all she needs.” I had to smile. Oscar was adorable in his role as father-to-be.

“Just sayin’, I’m keepin’ an eye on things.”

When Jitty started to get folksy with her language, I knew something was up. “What do you know?”

“There’s danger in the most unlikely places, Sarah Booth. Just keep your eyes open for people who don’t seem authentic.”

“Will do.” The only people I hoped to meet this weekend were masseuses, personal trainers, nutritionists, and my two best friends. I figured I was pretty safe from negative influences. “Hey, Jitty, are you going to bring me an Easter basket in the morning? You know I love dark chocolate and nuts. Maybe some of those robin eggs. Reese’s eggs are good, too. None of that nougat stuff.” I made a face.

“I remember how you used to steal little Tommy Atkins’s chocolate bunny at the school Easter egg hunts. You would wait for him to get distracted, then run over, grab the big bunny out of his basket, and bite the head off.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. I had done that. “Yeah, those were good times. He cried every single time I did it.”

Jitty shook her head. “It was also mean.”

“Not really.” Tommy Atkins was the biggest bully in the school. I was the only person who could bring him low, and I did it every single Easter at the class egg hunt. He never believed I’d do it again after the pounding he gave me. But I did it anyway. “Some people never learn,” I said.

“Yeah, and you are one of them!”

There was the melodious clinking of wind chimes and the back door of the B&B opened. Tinkie stepped out on the porch, her body backlit by the porch lights. Dusk had slipped into darkness. “Sarah Booth, it’s time for the meditation session! Are you out here?”

“Headed your way,” I said as I stepped out of the trees and onto the path where she could see me. It was going to be a fun evening.

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