A Sarah Booth Delaney Mystery

Carolyn Haines

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1

Tucked under an heirloom double wedding ring quilt on my comfy sofa, I listen to the wind howl outside Dahlia House. A winter freeze is pushing across the Mississippi Delta bringing ice, hail, and frigid, blustery winds. It’s a night for hot toddies and a fire—both of which I have. I hope to finish my February indulgence before the ice storm brings the power lines down and renders my televi­sion useless. I’m watching a movie from 1939. My favor­ite movie of all time.

The green face of Margaret Hamilton leers on the screen. “I’ll get you, my pretty. And your little dog, too.” Even though I’m fully grown and have seen this movie at least a thousand times, I cringe. The witch’s malevo­lence is tangible.

The Wicked Witch of the West disappears in a puff of smoke as I snuggle against Sweetie Pie, my remarkable red tick hound. The Wizard of Oz is an annual event at the house that has sheltered more than seven generations of Delaneys. I always watch it as the February winds blow cold over the raw earth of the Mississippi Delta. When I was a child, I’d snuggle between my parents and drink hot chocolate frothy with marshmallows, safe and secure from the witch’s evil intentions.

Dorothy and I share more than I’d ever admit to any­ one—a desire to go home. In the movie, she accom­ plishes that goal. In real life, such a journey is never within reach. Time can never be reversed, and the home of my childhood is far in the past.

On the TV screen, the witch shakes her broomstick and whirls about. The Munchkins cower in the face of such green evil, and I am glad for Sweetie Pie’s warm body and the purring of Pluto the black cat, who has my back, literally. It’s silly that at my age the witch can still frighten me, but she can.

Not five feet in front of me, orange smoke explodes. In the swirl of vapor, I discern the black and green image of the witch—right in my very own den. She leers at me and shakes her broomstick. “Beware, my fine lady. I may not attend you here and now, but you can’t escape me.” I push back against the sofa as the hair on Sweetie Pie’s back bristles. She barks and growls. Pluto, on the other hand, jumps from the sofa and saunters toward the witch. “Away with you.” The witch waves the broomstick at

Pluto, but the cat is not deterred.

I realize then that Jitty, the resident ghost of my family plantation, has come to devil me again. This is no man­ifestation from Oz, but the spirit of a former slave who survived the Civil War with my ancestor, Alice Delaney. She is both blessing and curse. “I’m trying to watch a movie,” I tell her.

“Give me the ruby slippers and I’ll let you live.”

I know she is a ghost, not a witch, and can’t conjure ruby slippers out of thin air, but I pull up the quilt and check my feet just to be sure. Nope. Plain old gym socks stuck on the ends of my legs so that I look like a sad Rag­gedy Ann doll.

“Get out of here. You’re making me miss the Munch­kins. The Lollipop Guild is one of my favorite parts.”

“Where’s that strong lawman? He should be here, protecting you from the big bad witch. Bringing some strong and upright sperm with him.”

“Coleman is working.” Jitty is right about one thing. It would have been cozy having Coleman Peters to snug­gle up to. An armed robbery at a convenience store has him out working late on a bitter winter night. As sheriff of Sunflower County, Mississippi, he doesn’t get to pick and choose his hours. He’s a 24/7 kind of lawman.

“You should be out in the patrol car with him, ready to shuck off those ugly sweatpants to help him pass the time while he’s doing surveillance. You need a job, Sarah Booth, and that would be a good one.”

Jitty’s goal in life is to get me pregnant so she’ll have a Delaney heir to haunt. “He isn’t on surveillance; he’s investigating. The last thing he needs is some Lustful Lucy trying to seduce him.”

“Sarah Booth Delaney, I know you aren’t so unimag­ inative that you can’t figure out a way to be useful to the sheriff and get pregnant. Use that thinking cap, Missy. Then use your money maker!”

“Go away.” I pause the movie and get up to make more popcorn. It’s a futile effort to escape Jitty. She only follows me to the kitchen, where she continues her harangue.

“You were this close to having Coleman,” she says, referring to a recent moment when Coleman and I— buck naked—had been headed upstairs to my bedroom. Tinkie Richmond, my partner in the Delaney Detective Agency, slammed through the front door, catching us red­handed and withering our mutual desire. Since then, we’ve made several attempts to lock out the rest of the world, but life has a terrible way of intervening. The truth is, I’m almost as impatient as Jitty to close the sexual gratification deal—but I’ll never let her know it.

“What I need is a new case, not a sperm donor. Now back off or I’ll dump a bucket of water on you.”

She whirled around once and disappeared in another poof of orange smoke. She was getting way too good at dramatic entrances and exits. The phone rang and I picked it up as I waited for the butter to heat in the bot­ tom of my skillet.

Tinkie was on the horn. “Whatever you’re doing, stop! You have to get over to the Sunflower County Board of Education meeting.”

“Why?” I paid my school taxes but I didn’t have children so I didn’t closely follow the issues of the public schools. In Mississippi, those issues were almost insur­mountable as the state legislature cut and cut and cut the school budget. Most of the local school board members were good ol’ boys who had about as much business dic­tating school policy as I had flying jets.

“A trio of witches are in the meeting right now. They’re applying for state recognition for their Wiccan boarding school, which they are opening in Sunflower County. Folks are all upset.”

“What witches?” Sunflower County had a lot of strange inhabitants, but I’d never come across boarding ­school witches, not even in the farthest reaches of the cotton fields and brakes.

“Sexy witches.”

Tinkie’s response left more questions than answers. “What are you talking about?”

“Get your sassy self down to the school board meet­ ing. You are missing the whole thing, so hurry. I have to get off the phone. I think the school board meeting is about to go postal. Man, I have to film this for Cece.” She hung up.

I turned off the stove and raced upstairs for my jeans and a warm sweater. If witches had moved to Sunflower County, I wanted to watch the action unfold. Like all small towns, Zinnia had a few people who’d set them­ selves up as moral leaders and those who knew best for everyone else. The schools had become the battle­ ground in many instances. Witches! It was going to be interesting.

The wind keened around the eaves of Dahlia House as I opened the front door. Sweetie Pie and Pluto, nor­mally my constant companions, each took one look out­ side and ran back upstairs. It was for the best. I’d have to leave them in the car and it was a bitter night. I locked the door and drove to town.

The school board meetings were held in an old World War II brick building a block from the courthouse, so I wasn’t surprised when I arrived and saw a patrol car parked outside. Things must have gotten rowdy in the meeting, and I knew Coleman Peters well enough to be able to predict his ire if the school board attendees had wasted his time with misconduct.

I slipped into the overcrowded room and took a seat in the back. Tinkie and Cece Dee Falcon, the best re­ porter in the Southeast, were in the front and therefore had a much better perspective. The room roiled with tension, and the place was so jam­packed I had difficulty finding the source of all the controversy. When at last I saw the witches, I was a bit disappointed. Three very at­ tractive young women sat at the table with the members of the school board. The women were close in age and as Tinkie had noted, oozed sexuality. Blonde, brunette, and redhead—they covered the range of hair colors. Their sense of style was a little risqué, but there wasn’t anything sinister about them in the least.

The brunette stood. “Our paperwork is in order. Ren­ ovations on the old dairy are already underway. We anticipate accepting our first­term students in August. As you can see, our curriculum has been approved by the state board of education.”

Nancy Cunningham, one of the town’s most uptight citizens, rose. “Our county will not tolerate this Wiccan foolishness. You will not receive state funding, and cer­ tainly you will not be allowed to use state education vouchers. I will see to it.”

The battle lines were drawn.

“You have no say­so,” the brunette said. “The Har­ rington School of Nature and Wiccan Studies has ap­ proval. There’s nothing you can do to stop it.”

“We’ll see about that, Ms. Harrington.” Nancy’s hand swept the air, encompassing all three young women. “We will not have the dark arts in a Christian county.”

The other two young women also stood. “Our meet­ ing here was a courtesy. If you’d like to tour our facility, please stop by. Otherwise, stay out of our way and out of our business. We’re going to bring education back to Mississippi. Our students will understand the role of na­ture in the world today. You can thank us in twenty years when the best and brightest begin to rule this country and save our planet.”

As they marched toward the door, Kitten Fontana stormed into the room and barred their way. “Sit back down. You aren’t going anywhere.” Kitten was Snooki with a drawl. She even had the ball of teased hair at her crown and the huge earrings that might pass for skinny girl hula hoops. She was one generation removed from brawling in back alleys with a girl gang, but she was loaded. Or at least her husband was.

“Kitten, just stay out of this.” Bob Fontana was chair­ man of the school board, and Kitten was his wife. Fon­ tana Construction and Development had lately gotten a number of bids for work on school facilities—a conflict of interest that seemed to upset no one but me and my friends.

Kitten had no intention of listening to her husband. She had the floor and knew how to use it. “Corey, my son, is missing.” She pointed to the witches. “And you are to blame. What have you done to my baby boy?” Kitten was also well known for hurling accusations without any facts to support them.

The woman beside me mumbled, “Whoever has him will bring him back. That boy is destined for a life of crime.” Indeed, Corey had a reputation for bad behavior. “We don’t know anything about your son,” the bru­nette said.

“You have him. I know you do. If one hair on his head is harmed, I’ll see that you burn like your ancestors.”

“I wouldn’t make idle threats against us,” the redhead said. “We don’t like that.”

“I don’t give two hoots what you like or dislike,” Kit­ ten said. “I want my son. What have you done with him?” “Asked and answered,” the redhead said. She turned away to retrieve her purse. Kitten ran toward the witches and just as she lifted her hand to slap the blond one, she cried out in pain and crumpled. No one had touched her—but something was causing Kitten pain.

“Stop! Make it stop!” Kitten cried out. Suddenly she slumped over as if a hard grip had released her.

“I’d be careful of that tennis elbow,” the blond witch said. “Now get out of our way. We don’t have a clue what you’re talking about. If you can’t control your child, you shouldn’t try to blame it on someone else. At Harrington School, our children will be accounted for and under con­ trol at all times. From what I’ve heard around town, that boy of yours is a menace. Keep him off our property— or else.”

Kitten’s face contorted and her hands formed into claws, the red­painted talons of her fingertips extended in a classic cat­fight pose. Bob leaped up from the table and grabbed his wife around the waist. “Kitten, control yourself.”

“They have Corey. He went over to the dairy to play a prank and he hasn’t come home.” Kitten grunted with exertion as she fought against Bob’s hold. I definitely didn’t want to be near their home when all of this came to a head later. Kitten Fontana brooked no constraints when she wanted to express herself. She’d made a fool of herself numerous times at various board meetings and gatherings, and no one was going to stop her from doing the same here.

Tinkie edged up beside me. Cece was snapping photos. “Who are these witches?” I asked.

“Hope, Faith, and Charity Harrington. They’re sisters. And powerful witches.” Tinkie sounded like she was read­ ing a fairy tale.

“Get real.” I’d been inoculated from such foolishness by Jitty.

“They’re allegedly very powerful. And they cast spells and sell potions.”

Three days ago, I’d noticed a little shop that had opened on a country road where Musgrove’s Dairy used to sell whole milk and homemade butter and cheeses back in the 1970s. As far as I knew, the dairy had been out of business a long time, and the eccentric owner, Trevor Musgrove, a renowned artist, was a recluse in the old manor house that was part of the dairy. As I thought about it, I realized the dairy and manor were a perfect setup for a boarding school and gift shop. The Har­ rington sisters might not have witchy powers, but they had something better—brain power.

“Tomorrow, let’s stop by Pandora’s Box and buy some spells.” Tinkie was as wide­eyed as Dorothy in the Emerald City.

“I wonder if they have Corey Fontana somewhere on the premises. The boy is a juvenile delinquent who’s never paid a price for his destructive behavior. Kitten al­ ways buys him out of trouble.” I’d heard gossip about some of Corey’s activities, such as tossing watermelons off the overpass onto cars. He’d nearly caused several wrecks, but the Fontanas’ expensive lawyer had man­ aged to keep him clear of punishment.

“One day he’ll get into something she can’t get him out of.” Tinkie had been a child of privilege, but she’d been held accountable for her conduct.

“Let’s meet at Millie’s Café for breakfast and we can take a jaunt out to the old Musgrove dairy and see what’s what.” It was time to leave the school board meeting. The fireworks were over and the board would be back to dull issues like school bus routes and leaky roofs.

As we made our exit, we were joined by the Har­ rington sisters. I took a moment to introduce myself, dis­ covering that Hope was the brunette, Faith the redhead, and Charity the blonde. They had come to Sunflower County via Lafayette, Louisiana, where they’d run a very successful Montessori school, which had whetted their appetites to try something bigger with more potential impact.

“Mississippi gives any school with a religious founda­ tion the right to apply for state vouchers. I don’t think they were anticipating a Wiccan school, but we are a recognized religion. No different from the Baptists or Catholics.” Charity flipped her silvery blond hair over her shoulder. “I just have to wonder how some of these people get elected.”

“The younger generation has no connection to na­ ture,” Hope said. “We have to reconnect or the attacks upon the planet will continue and the future of the human race will be in jeopardy. Without clean water and air, we have nothing.”

“Wouldn’t a science-­based boarding school create less . . . controversy?” Tinkie was always the peacemaker. “Folks around here get a bit uptight about religion. And witches.”

“Contrary to what is currently being taught in public schools, religion, nature, and science aren’t in conflict. The Wiccan religion is very loving and based on the sci­ence of balance with nature. It’s not like we worship the Dark Lord and say the Bible backwards.” Charity had a merry laugh that matched her blond curls. I couldn’t tell if the vivid array of hair color among the sisters came from bottles, but the shades complimented each woman’s complexion. And possibly her personality.

“If you don’t worship the Dark Lord, what do you worship?” Tinkie asked.

“So glad you want to know.” Faith opened her huge purse and pulled out printed material. “This is the Wic­ can Rede. It’s the basis of our beliefs and a call for ethi­ cal and careful behavior. We believe in protecting Nature and the helpless. We believe in sisterhood, the moon, the power of white magic to heal and help, and the benevo­ lence of the Goddess. We can cast spells, but only those that bring light. We make potions, but only those that bring about love and healing.”

“Think Glinda,” I said to Tinkie. My viewing of The Wizard of Oz had been interrupted, but now I fo­und myself in a real­ life confrontation of a trio of sexy witches.

“Do we look like Glinda?” Hope asked.

“Maybe if you traded in your leather miniskirt for a ruffled pink gown . . .” I smiled to let them know I was teasing. These were modern witches, and as Tinkie had described them, sexy. They wore black leggings, skinny jeans, miniskirts, and the latest provocative styles. I could definitely see where they might cast a spell on a man.

“What do you know about Corey Fontana?” Tinkie asked.

“The little bastard spray­ painted ‘Burn, Witch, Burn’ on the wall of the dairy. That’s what I know,” Faith said. Her temper seemed to match her red hair. “I ran him off. I did chase him through the fields and woods, but I didn’t hurt him. I didn’t catch him. As far as I know, he went home.”

“How old is Corey?” Tinkie asked.

Faith shook her head. “Maybe seventeen or eighteen. I didn’t get a good look at him, but I know his reputa­ tion. He and his mother have been stewing about us for weeks now. Ever since we came to town in December and started renovations. I’m pretty sure she sent him over to deface our property.”

“Your property?” I asked.

“We’re buying the dairy, manor, and grounds from Trevor. He’ll remain living in the manor. There’s plenty of room for us and a boatload of students, artists, and teachers.”

“I can’t believe Trevor’s actually selling the property.” It had been in the Musgrove family for close on two hun­ dred years. Like my ancestors, Trevor’s had gradually bought pieces of land until they owned a tract of more than a thousand acres. “Is Trevor at the manor now?” I asked.

“On the third floor. He seldom comes downstairs. Charity is going to handle the international sales of his artwork for him. He’ll remain on the third floor as long as he lives.”

“His work is fantastic,” Charity said, already wearing her marketing hat. “His series of ancient goddesses are stupendous. And the nudes as iconic religious figures— now that created such a scandal, but those paintings sold for six figures in Italy, Spain, and Brazil.” She nudged Faith.

“He isn’t that old,” I said. Trevor Musgrove wasn’t even sixty. “He could live another thirty years. I can’t believe he’s going to be a tenant on his own family’s property.”

“He won’t make sixty at the rate he’s going,” Faith said. “Women march up and down those stairs at all hours of the day and night. His models, or so he says. More like his paramours. He’s doing a lot of activity besides painting, if you get my drift. You know, it’s in­ teresting that this county gets up in arms about a school, but they don’t say a thing about Trevor and his sexual escapades. He’s banging half the under­fifty wives in the county.”

“It’s the whole witch thing.” Tinkie held up her hand to stop them from commenting. “You have to teach the public what you represent and stand for. The word witch has a lot of negative connotations. Eye of newt, bat wings, spells, consorting with Satan, plagues, famines— black magic.”

“How perfectly medieval,” Hope said, and we all laughed.

I wasn’t certain the Harrington sisters would fare well in Sunflower County, but I respected what they were try­ ing to accomplish. The idea of a school focused around nature and healing seemed like a much­ needed area of education—and if a Protestant­ or Catholic ­based school could get state funding, the Wiccans should be able to have it, too. Besides, if the younger generation didn’t value the planet, there would be a terrible price to pay. Even I could see that.

“This school voucher thing,” Tinkie edged toward the hot topic. “Do you really believe the state will give students money to pay for your school?”

“They have to. The legislature opened the door to this when they began to allow parents to use vouchers or ed­ucation credits to pay for private schools. We’re a recog­nized religion. What they do for one, they must do for others.” Hope’s grin was more than a little wicked. “We wouldn’t want the federal government down here mess­ ing in the schools again, would we?”

“I might,” I said under my breath. The state politi­cians were certainly making a mess of it. “Okay, good luck, ladies. I have a date with Dorothy and Toto. I was in the middle of The Wizard of Oz before I came here.” I was ready to head home. The wind was biting into my face and hands as we stood outside the school board meeting, and my pets were waiting for me. I’d been roused from my evening plans by a tempest in a teapot. “Watch out for the green witches,” Hope called out. “They’re the most dangerous.” And then she gave a per­fect imitation of Margaret Hamilton’s cackle. It made chills dance along my skin.

I’d reached my car when Kitten Fontana came burst­ ing out of the building calling my name and Tinkie’s.

“I’m hiring the Delaney Detective Agency to find my son,” she declared. “Corey went over to the dairy and hasn’t returned home. Those witches are up to some­ thing and he was going to prove it. They must have caught him or he’d be home. He didn’t have any dinner and he’s not answering his phone. He’s just a kid, and I just know they’ve done something terrible to him. Here’s a check for ten grand. That’s your retainer, correct?”

We didn’t have a retainer fee, but I took the check.

 

Taxes were due. As much as I wanted to go home, busi­ness was a priority.

“Let’s head over to the Prince Albert for a libation and a chat,” Kitten said. “I need a vodka to clear my head.”

I was a little stunned that a drink was Kitten’s solu­ tion to a missing child, but then again, Corey did have a reputation of driving people to drink. Tinkie waved goodbye to the witches and fell into step with me and Snook—Kitten.

The wind almost took our breath away when we stepped out of the lee of the building and into the street. We put it in high gear and hustled to the Prince Albert bar, where I lost no time ordering a dirty vodka martini with multiple olives. It was a martini kind of night. Kitten went straight for the cream with a White Russian, and Tinkie played it safe with white wine. Someone had to be responsible.

I was a little curious that Kitten jumped on her bar­ stool, kicked off her shoes, and sighed with contentment. The night was tanking—temperature­ wise—and the mer­cury was on the verge of freezing. Her teenage son was missing—she’d written a check for ten grand for us to find him—and she was drinking cocktails. I wondered if Bob was out looking for the boy or if they’d simply had enough of his bad behavior and the worry it caused. Or maybe she knew exactly where her kid was and she’d come to the school board meeting to cause trouble for the Harrington sisters.

“Do you really believe those women are witches?” Kitten asked.

“You tell me. You were going to slap one of them and you stopped.” I was dying to hear this explanation. “What happened?”

“It was like someone grabbed hold of my hand and bent it backward. Almost like they were going to break it at the wrist. The pain was excruciating.”

She had doubled over, as if she were in actual pain. But Kitten, like all women who made their way pleasing a man, was a great actress. I’ll bet Bob Fontana believed he was the best lover alive. Ego was always the weakness of men like Bob. He had a talent, but it wasn’t sensitiv­ ity or brains.

“And the pain stopped as suddenly as it began?” I asked.

“It did. It was very curious. You don’t think—” Her eyes widened. “She was protected by a spell!”

“I didn’t say that.”

“It would certainly explain it.” Kitten whipped out her phone. She couldn’t wait to spread the news that the witches could cast spells.

Tinkie snatched her phone. “Don’t do that. You have no proof and you’re going to get those women hurt. Some people will get hysterical about the idea of spells and such.”

“Have you been to Musgrove Manor?” Kitten eyed her phone but she didn’t attempt to grab it. Tinkie had won, for the moment. “There are cats everywhere. Everyone knows witches have cats as familiars.”

I could only roll my eyes. “I have a black cat.”

“I’ve always wondered about you, too,” Kitten said, deadly serious.

“Please, if I had the power to cast spells, you’d know it. The only reason the dairy is overrun with cats is because Trevor was too lazy to get them spayed and neu­ tered. Totally irresponsible.”

“Trevor is a great artist. He shouldn’t worry about vermin.” Kitten sipped her drink and licked her lips, just like a cat. I had visions of neutering her.

“Where do you think your son is on this bitter cold night?” Tinkie asked, inserting the ice pick and giving it a little twist.

“Those witches have him. I know it in my heart.” “Now if they were into voodoo, he might be a great human sacrifice,” I said, draining my martini. I’d had enough of her company. Her check might be good but her soul was rotten. To the core.

“They wouldn’t dare harm a hair on his head.” Kitten lapped her drink and gave me a knowing look. “They’ll default on that property, Bob will buy it, and soon Sun­flower County will have an exclusive subdivision built around a world­ class golf course. Those broomstick riders will fly right out of the county.”

She was pretty certain of her predictions, and I won­dered why.

“We’d better get busy looking for Corey,” Tinkie said. “It’s freezing outside. If he has injured himself and is out in this weather, he could face hypothermia.”

“He has the finest outdoor gear. Vest, coat, socks, boots, hand warmers.” Kitten slipped into her heels and stood. “He’s probably hiding out at a friend’s.”

“But you just gave us ten grand to find him. If you think he’s safe . . .” This wasn’t about Corey or finding him. This was the beginning salvo in the Fontanas’ plan to get their hands on Musgrove Manor and the dairy. The golf course subdivision wasn’t just big talk, it was the future as envisioned by Kitten and Bob.

“We’ll report in tomorrow,” Tinkie said, grabbing my elbow and steering me toward the door. She knew I was about to explode. “Daddy needs a new Cadillac,” she whispered to me as she forced me to the exit. “Hold your tongue. Daddy needs a bright red Caddy.” Tinkie’s brand­ new car had been destroyed in our last case, and she did need a new one.

“Okay, okay.” I shook free of her and continued out of the hotel. In the shadow cast by the front of Hoffman Furniture, a woman lurked, blending into the storefront. I nudged Tinkie. “Who is that?” Tinkie knew everyone in the county.

“I don’t recognize her, but I can’t see her all that well either.”

The woman was staring right at us, but she didn’t step forward. She was trim and wearing stilettos that looked like a whorehouse special—the kind of shoes we used to call knock­me­down­and­screw­me shoes, which led me to believe she might be a friend of Kitten Fontana. She had that Snooki thing going with her hair, too. Hadn’t they ever heard that roaches would nest in teased hair that was shellacked to madness with hairspray?

“I’ll bet she’s waiting on Kitten to come out.” Tinkie tried to hustle me away from the hotel door.

When I looked back inside the bar, Kitten was on the phone. Judging from the animation on her face and her excitement, I’d be willing to predict that spellcasting would be the town buzz by daybreak. Tinkie and I race­ walked around the corner and pressed ourselves against the wall. And waited. When we heard voices, we looked back.

Shadow Woman had stepped under a streetlamp and Kitten rushed out the door to speak with her—after casting furtive glances around to be sure she wasn’t seen. She should have been safe; the town was quiet. But she hadn’t counted on us.

Tinkie inhaled sharply. “I know who that is. It’s Esmeralda Grimes, the tabloid reporter from Memphis. She’s on a lot of those entertainment shows where they dish the dirt on celebrities. Millie is going to have a field day.” She was about to squeal with delight when I put a hand over her mouth. Tinkie was correct—Millie Rob­erts, café owner, was addicted to celebrity and entertain­ment gossip—but we were snooping and had to stay quiet. Oh, I knew who Esmeralda Grimes was. “She’s that crazy . . . person who writes for the International Report and does those stories about live births of half­ sheep­-half­ human babies, alien abductions, conspiracy theories about members of the royal family and their connections to Appalachian baby sales.”

“That’s her! And she’s meeting with Kitten. Those two are up to no good.”

And that was the first major understatement of the new year.

2

 

Instead of going home, as any smart detectives would have, Tinkie and I left her rental car and I drove my mother’s antique Mercedes Roadster to the U­Tote­Em, Zinnia’s all­-night emporium of rolling papers, wine, cig­arettes, pork skins, and cardboard pizza. And, best of all, the latest issue of the International Report.

While I picked up two packs of cashews and some sparkling water, Tinkie grabbed two copies of the tab­loid. We were off into the night. It was one of those rare evenings when Tinkie wasn’t ready to go home. Nothing against her husband, Oscar, but our detective blood was up. We had work to do. And I suspected she hated driv­ing the rental car, which looked like a cube on wheels. Tinkie’s elegance bone was offended.

Sweetie Pie and Pluto greeted us at the front door of Dahlia House as we hurried inside. I rustled up some drinks and popcorn to go with the cashews and we went to our office to study the tabloid. It didn’t take much study. The headline screamed zinnia witches conjure dead elvis.

The whole front page was an image of Faith, Hope, and Charity flying around a bubbling cauldron on broomsticks. Rising from the pot was gold­lamé Elvis. The picture was so obviously Photoshopped I wanted to laugh. How many rubes would take this as literal evidence the Harrington sisters were raising the dead? Not to mention flying on broomsticks.

“Satan selling Popsicles,” Tinkie said. “This is an out­ rage.”

And suddenly we were both laughing. And we knew exactly why Esmeralda Grimes was in town. Kitten had money to burn, and she was determined to rid Musgrove Manor of the witches. One way or the other. Slander and libel would be as effective as a house fire. Kitten was a devious and determined woman.

We read the story, which held little factual content and a whole lot of speculation about the sisters and why they had left Lafayette, Louisiana. Still, it was a good lead for us to follow up on, should Corey Fontana fail to appear in the next few hours. I felt certain the teenager was only helping his mother foment fear about the witches, but I’d learned never to count my chickens before they hatched.

Tinkie and I drank, ate, and talked until the sun came up. We made a list of places to check for Corey, includ­ ing classmates, hangouts, and area jails—the boy was a known juvenile delinquent. But mostly we talked. It had

been a long time since we’d pulled an all­-nighter just sharing. And we were ready for action at first light. Tinkie brought out a pair of sweatpants and sneakers from her desk drawer. We’d vowed at the first of the year to walk and work out at least three times a week. Needless to say, her clothes were still clean and unworn. But they’d come in handy now.

I raced upstairs to change into hiking boots. Our breakfast at Millie’s would have to wait. I grabbed flash­ lights and my gun. Again, I didn’t anticipate shooting anyone, but it was better to be prepared. Just as the sun peeked over the horizon, Tinkie, Sweetie, Pluto, and I were on the way to Musgrove Manor to search for the missing teen. Chablis, Tinkie’s little Yorkie, was going to be angry at us, but we didn’t want to risk waking Oscar by stopping by Hilltop for her.

My cell phone rang and Coleman’s warm and sexy voice buzzed in my ear as he teased me with, “Ready for some company in that big bed?”

“Only if you don’t consider three a crowd. Tinkie is with me. She said she had a hankering to stand naked on the stairs at Dahlia House.” I could still make him blush at the mention of Tinkie and sex in the same sen­ tence, and though I couldn’t see Coleman I knew he was blushing. When Tinkie had caught us both naked on the stairs, she’d gained the upper hand over Coleman Peters. And I was glad to help her keep it.

“Sarah Booth, just understand that there’s a price to be paid for not playing fair.”

It was definitely a threat. “I’ll take my chances.” “I’ll wait until Tinkie isn’t around. We’ll see how tough you are when you don’t have your protector.”

“I can take care of myself.” But my heart was racing, and I felt a little light­headed. “So did you catch the rob­bers?” Turning the conversation was the only smart thing to do.

“I did. I heard from DeWayne that you’re working for the Fontanas.” He was all but laughing. Kitten’s reputa­tion preceded her.

“Her kid is missing. Maybe. I think she’s stirring up trouble for the Wiccan school.”

“Corey Fontana is trouble. He’s been associated with some real crime in the county. I haven’t been able to pin anything on him, but he’s got a streak of violence. Be careful.”

“I think the kid is at home playing video games. This is a ploy.”

“Bob Fontana wants to develop the Musgrove prop­ erty. I’d say your instincts are right on,” Coleman said. “Still, be careful.”

“Tink and I are headed out to search the woods for the missing boy. Just in case he’s hurt.”

“Shall I join you?”

“You get some sleep. If you’re going to bring me to heel, you’re going to need all of your strength.” I hung up before he could respond. Baiting the bear was safe only for a limited amount of time.

Tinkie was grinning like the Cheshire Cat when I glanced at her. “Shut up.”

“I didn’t say a word.” Her grin widened. “I should have taken that photo of you two looking like ’possums in the headlights. I’ll never again let decency and friend­ ship overrule a chance for power.”

“Coleman would put you in jail.”

“And Cece would print that photo. Then where would our pistol­packing sheriff be?”

Tinkie had the upper hand. The best I could man­ age was a graceful retreat. “Look, there’s the dairy. Shall we start on the grounds or go to the manor house and wake them up?”

“Do witches need to sleep?” She answered my ques­ tion with a question as I pulled into the parking area. She leaned over and pressed hard on the horn. “That should do the trick.”

A frisky Tinkie was a dangerous creature. The horn roused about two dozen cats of all colors and descrip­ tions. They came out from under the porch of the house, out the windows in the dairy barn, jumping out of trees and off the porch roof. Cats were everywhere. And Pluto was standing at the car’s front window, all alert and eager.

“What if they haven’t had their vaccinations?” I said to him.

“Meow.” He waited for Tinkie to open her door and he was out like a shot. Pluto was a curious fellow.

“No more stray cats dumped here,” Hope said as she came out the door tying a gorgeous oriental wrap around herself. The reds and blacks were perfect for her coloring.

“He’s my cat. He’s only here on official investigative purposes.” Once Corey Fontana was found and returned home, I’d speak with the Harrington sisters about a trap, neuter, and release program for the cats. Or maybe they could just do a sterility spell on the colony. Wouldn’t that be convenient?

Hope sat down on the porch steps and ran her fingers through her black, tousled hair. “Cat detective. Back­ woods Mississippi. Nothing surprises me. Does he talk? Maybe bartend?”

 

“No, but he can sniff out a villain,” I said, handing her the folded tabloid.

Her response when she opened it was a long belly laugh. “This is great. And yes, I have Elvis upstairs in my bedroom. He’s my sex slave. He’s got it going on.” She stood up and struck an Elvis pose complete with leg shake and a few bars of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” She had a great voice.

Tinkie burst out laughing and I had to join in. Bru­ nette witch had a good sense of humor.

“So Esmeralda Grimes is in Zinnia,” Hope said. “I’m happy to see she never lets the facts stand in the way of a good story.”

“The International Report believes in alternative fac­ts,” Tinkie said. “I wonder if alternative facts would fly with paying my taxes?”

“I wouldn’t risk it,” I said. “Now let’s talk about Corey Fontana.”

“Why don’t you come inside and have some coffee?” Hope stood and opened the front door. “It’s freezing and I need caffeine if I’m going to talk sensibly. Bring your dog inside, too.”

She didn’t have to ask twice. I let Sweetie Pie out of the car and we all rushed the front door, where we were met with a wave of delicious heat. In the back of my mind I had a thought for Corey Fontana. I hoped the boy hadn’t spent the night outside. He was a delinquent, no doubt about it. But if he was fooling around and ended up in­ jured and exposed to the elements, he could lose fingers, toes, or even his nose.

We found Faith and Charity in the kitchen. The deli­cious aroma of fresh­ brewed coffee made me sigh with pleasure. Hope picked three mugs out of the cabinet and poured coffee for us. When we were all seated at a sturdy farm table, I brought the conversation around to Corey Fontana.

“Like I said in the school board meeting, the kid de­faced our barn,” Charity said. “I’m sure his daddy will pay to have the paint removed. I saw the boy doing it and ran out the door yelling. He dashed off into the woods, and Faith and I chased him for a little ways, but I didn’t have a jacket or gloves and it was freezing. I gave up and came back home.”

“How did you know it was Corey?” I asked.

“He’s been snooping around here since we arrived. Sometimes he hangs out in the tree line and watches us with binoculars.” Faith laughed. “One of these days he’s going to get a real surprise.”

I was about to ask her what she meant by that, but Faith picked up Tinkie’s hand. “We can help you with your problem.”

Her words were so out of context with anything that had been said that I was stunned to silence.

“What problem would that be?” Tinkie asked.

“The child you want.” Faith held her hand even when Tinkie tried to withdraw it.

“I don’t think that’s funny.” Tinkie’s dander was get­ ting up.

“It’s not a joke,” Faith said.

“We can help you,” Charity added. “We can cast a spell, do an incantation. There are some herbs you can take. You’ll have a baby before the year is finished.”

“That must be some kind of spell,” I said sharply. “It’s already February. She’d have to conceive virtually this week.”

“It can happen,” Faith said, her green gaze steady.

 

“Really?” Tinkie bit hook, line, and sinker. She’d wanted a baby more than anything for a long, long time. But there were fertility issues. Medical issues that couldn’t be wished away.

“Tinkie, don’t be foolish. You’ve been to the best doctors in the nation.” I couldn’t bear the thought of Tinkie’s disappointment—again.

“This isn’t about medicine,” Faith said. “It’s about the power of love. The power of motherhood. The need for a child. And a little bit of magic. I’ll get a potion from the shop. We just stocked everything fresh.”

I stood up and slammed my coffee cup on the table. “This is wrong. You know it’s wrong.”

Tinkie reached out and grabbed my arm. “What would it hurt to try?”

“We aren’t charging,” Faith said. “It’s our gift to you.” It wasn’t money. Tinkie and Oscar had enough to light bonfires with it if that’s what they wanted to do. It was about my partner’s heart and spirit. “What time was Corey Fontana here?” I meant to finish my business with the sisters and leave. Tinkie would have to go with me; I was driving.

“It was just after school let out.” Faith went to the cabinet and got several unusual boxes of tea. She began to mix a concoction while she heated water on the stove. “I was making some extract of dandelion weed when I saw him spray ­painting the wall. I ran out, he ran away. Charity and I gave chase and when we couldn’t catch him, we came home.” She poured the hot water over the tea and put the mug in front of Tinkie. “Let it steep a few minutes. You should probably give up coffee and alcohol.” “Tinkie, I need a word with you.” I wasn’t about to let her drink whatever that was. I grabbed her arm and almost lifted her out of her chair. In a moment, we were out of the kitchen and in the hallway. “What are you doing?”

“I want a baby. I don’t care how I get one.” Her lips were thin and pressed tight. “Stay out of this, Sarah Booth. I mean it. This probably won’t work, but if there’s even a one percent chance, I want it.”

“You’re only going to get hurt.”

“I have a right to take any risk I choose.”

This was old, familiar ground, but I was usually the one arguing for the right to risk-­take. Most often against physical injury. And Tinkie defended that right. Even against Coleman, who felt it was his personal duty to keep me safe.

“Okay.” I had no right to stop her. “Try it if you have to.”

We returned to the kitchen and Tinkie drank the tea, which she said was surprisingly good.

“We should go,” I said. “We need to find Corey.” “We could dowse for him,” Hope offered. “Dowse?” I’d heard the term and knew it was a magical search, but I’d always associated it with looking for water. “I’d like to see that.”

Hope left the kitchen and returned with a property map of Sunflower County and a crystal pendant on a silver chain. “I’ll concentrate on where Corey is and al­ low the pendant to swing over the map. When it pulls down, it will show me where Corey is.”

“Really?” Tinkie was impressed. I was skeptical. Hope held the chain and set the pendant to swing­ing. She said a few incantations in a language I didn’t understand, then finished with, “Corey Fontana, we seek you.”

The pendant twirled and gradually stopped moving. The crystal actually seemed to tug Hope’s hand down as it struck a point on the old Crenshaw property next door to Musgrove Manor.

“He should be right there.” Hope looked troubled. “I honestly thought he’d gone home and Mrs. Fontana was just staging a drama.”

I studied the map. The Crenshaw plantation had been abandoned for a long time. If Corey was there, he might be injured. We had to search for him. “Would it be okay if we cut across your property to see if we can find any traces of Corey?” I asked.

“Knock yourselves out,” Hope said. “That boy is full of the very devil. And, trust me, witches know the devil when we see it.” She grinned.

I couldn’t help but like her. She had a wicked humor. “Thanks.”

Faith leaned over and whispered something in Tin­ kie’s ear. She smiled and nodded her agreement, but she followed me outside without complaint.

With Sweetie Pie and Pluto leading the way, we left the manor house. We cut through an impressive herb garden that was tended with great love and headed through the fields toward the woods. Some of the pas­tures remained cleared and planted in alfalfa and Bahia grasses that were harvested for hay. A lot of the once­ cleared land had grown up in thick woods. When we left the open fields and entered the woods, the temperature dropped at least ten degrees.

Tinkie and I walked side by side. I waited for her to break the silence.

“If we find Corey on the Crenshaw place, will you believe the witches have powers?” she asked.

“No. I’d be more likely to believe they knew where he was because they put him there.”

She laughed. “You have no faith in magic, Sarah Booth.”

It was a statement I’d have to study. I had a family ghost haunting my home who sometimes brought me messages from the Great Beyond. Why couldn’t I believe three sister witches had the power to make Tinkie fer­ tile? Until I had an answer, I vowed to keep my mouth shut.

Movement to our right made us all freeze in place. Sweetie Pie’s ruff bristled and a low growl came from her throat. A ripple of energy, like a dark shadow, raced through the trees. Tinkie drew closer to me. I’d never been afraid of anything in the woods, but my heart was pound­ ing with fear. “There’s no such thing as the boogeyman,” I said, though I hadn’t meant to speak aloud.

“What was that?” Tinkie asked. Pluto arched his back and turned to face the direction we’d come from. In the distance, branches snapped and a long, extended howl seemed to ricochet off the tree trunks.

“Let’s get this finished,” I said. We were almost to the Crenshaw place. If we didn’t find Corey, we could take the long route home along the roadway. I wasn’t walking back through the woods. I didn’t care how ridiculous I sounded. Something was there. An intelligence. And it watched us.

“There’s the old house.” Tinkie pointed and I could make out the shape of the former plantation. The white paint was long gone and the gray boards blended with the drab winter grounds.

We came to the edge of the woods but were met by a thicket of blackberry stalks. The thorny vines were almost impenetrable.

“Sleeping Beauty,” Tinkie said, expressing my exact thoughts.

“We won’t find a princess. If we do find Corey, he’s more like a bad apple. Speaking of which, I wonder if the Musgrove apple orchard still has fruit. Those were some delicious spring apples.” I wore a thick jacket and sturdy jeans, but I didn’t relish wading through a field of briars.

“There’s a path.” Tinkie had found a narrow dirt trail through the worst of the briars. We set out toward the old Crenshaw plantation. The sun had risen and the day was warming, promising a blue sky and temperatures that were tolerable.

“Corey!” Tinkie yelled out his name. “Corey!” I joined her.

We left the briars behind and stepped onto the front porch of the abandoned dwelling. “Corey!” we called through a broken window.

No answer.

“Corey!” I put a hand on Tinkie’s arm to halt her. On the east side of the house it sounded like someone scuf­ fling. “Corey!” we yelled again.

“Help!” The word was small and muffled, but clearly a request for assistance.

We jumped off the side of the porch and spread out to explore the raggedy lawn. Volunteer oak trees grew up in the middle of heritage camellias and the dead limbs of bridal wreath and hydrangeas. This had once been a gorgeous lawn that framed the graceful architecture of the old house perfectly.

 

“Corey! Where are you?” Tinkie called out. “Here! In the pit.”

His voice was clearer now. We moved toward the eastern lawn. About twenty yards from the house we came to the edge of a pit where tree limbs and leaves had been piled. Something moved beneath the leaves. It was like the stirring of a long untouched grave, and I grasped Tinkie’s hand.

“Corey?” If it wasn’t Corey, we were going to set a land record getting out of there.

“Help me.”

A la Carrie, a hand reached up through the leaves. Sweetie Pie went crazy barking and growling and

Pluto dashed up a nearby chinaberry tree.

“Oh, shit!” Tinkie reeled backward and tripped over a big stone. I grabbed for her and lost my footing, too. In a moment, I’d fallen on top of her and we both rolled down the slope of the pit.

“Awwwghh!” was the only utterance I could get out. We crashed to a halt on top of the hand, and Tinkie let out a squeal. “It pinched my bottom! The hand pinched my bottom!” She leaped up, stepped on my head, and vaulted out of the pit. Good thing she was petite or my skull would be crushed.

“Hey, you’re suffocating me,” the body beneath the leaves said. “Help me out.”

I flipped over and dug down into the leaves with my hand and caught hold of another hand. A warm, human hand. “Corey, is that you?”

“Get me out of here. I fell in and my leg is caught.”

I glanced at Tinkie, now composing herself on the edge of the pit. “Get your cell phone out and call Cole­man. Tell him we need help rescuing Corey Fontana.”

“I vote we just leave him.” Tinkie wasn’t kidding. “He scared ten years off my life. And he pinched my butt. Hard.”

I started laughing. I couldn’t help it. We’d spooked ourselves and nearly suffocated Corey. “Make the call. We just earned ten grand for two hours’ work. It’s worth a few scratches and some leaves in your hair.”

“So say you.” But Tinkie whipped out her phone and made the call while I began to clear away the debris. Corey appeared fine, and he’d been smart to bury him­self in the leaves to stay warm. We’d need a chain saw and some strong men to get him out. I could only hope the little juvenile had learned a lesson, but somehow, judging by the smirk on his face, I doubted it.

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