Exclusive Excerpt: The Devil’s Bones by Carolyn Haines
By Carolyn HainesApril 27, 2020
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 full-blown 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, san-dals, 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 day-to-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 au then tic.”
“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.
“I cannot believe we’re on vacation and have to get up at five o’clock.” Cece held a cup of hot coffee as she drilled both me and Tinkie with her gaze. Outside the dining room windows at the inn, night still lingered. “Why don’t we cancel attending the service and just go back to bed?”
“Not on your life. It’s a sunrise service. That means we have to be at the gardens at sunrise,” Tinkie said. “You knew this when you signed on.”
Cece gulped some coffee and sighed. “Yes, I did. I must have been delusional at the time. It’s Easter Sun-day and I’m going to hear a religious sermon at the buttcrack of dawn.” She shook her head.
“Come on, hot diggity. We’ll take the Roadster. The air is cool and it should wake you up.” The truth was, I loved driving my mother’s old car at dawn on a warm spring morning. The pine woods around the inn were lovely, and at some of the old home sites, the scent of wisteria wafted to me.
“Maybe I should stay here and book another massage,” Cece said, but she winked at me. She was just trying to get Tinkie’s goat.
“You are not staying behind!”
Cece cackled gleefully and I aimed her at the door of our suite and gave her a gentle kick in the pants. “Tinkie is pregnant and you should not torment her.”
“I know, but she’s taking this whole child-rearing thing so seriously. Tinkie, you’re a good person. You and Oscar both. You will raise a good child. Of all the people in the world, you shouldn’t worry.”
Tinkie nodded quickly. “Thank you, but I just want to know what’s available. I do think some type of religious or spiritual instruction is important. Faith can be an anchor in times of crisis.”
I wasn’t going to dispute that. Besides, what I believed wasn’t the issue at all. Tinkie had to find her own path. My job, as her friend, was simply to keep her company as she searched.
“Donna Dickerson said she’d have breakfast ready for us.” I pointed to the door. “Let’s grab a quick bite before we head out.”
We bantered and teased each other as we took a seat at a window table with a view of a meditation maze. It was filled with spring bulbs and so beautiful.
The sound of rattling dishes and pots came from the kitchen so it was no surprise when Donna came out with fresh coffee. She was filling our cups when I heard a male voice.
“Ladies, are you attending the sunrise service?”
I looked up into the face of a very handsome man about our age. “We are.”
“I’m Hans O’Shea, a traveling correspondent for Places Off the Beaten Path and Globe Trotters. I’d like to get some quotes from you after the service. Ladies as beautiful as you three will increase my viewership.”
Hans was tall and well built, and he had the ease that came with being in front of a camera. Charm was his middle name, and while all three of us were totally committed to our men, we could enjoy a little masculine attention. Hans was not above shameless flattery and we ate it up with a spoon.
“Globe Trotters is that show about semi-famous people who travel to exotic locations,” Cece explained. As a journalist herself, she knew a lot about the subject, even entertainment journalism. “You were nominated for an Emmy last year.”
“You’ve heard of me?” Hans was thrilled at the recognition. His blue eyes lit up with merriment. “Let me compliment you yet again on your discerning viewing choices.”
The man was full of himself, but he was also self-mocking. It was a fun combination.
“Millie is going to be really upset she missed this trip,” Tinkie whispered to me.
Millie Roberts ran the local café in Zinnia and she was a fiend for celebrity gossip and scandal. If the Kardashian family was hosting an event she knew all about it. She knew who wore who on the red carpet for the Oscars, who was borrowing jewels and who was lending them, and who was making moon eyes at whom. She would be heartbroken at missing a chat with Hans. In fact, she and Cece were collaborating on a website that would replace the dying National Enquirer and also al-low Millie to expound on her favorite topics, such as the ghost of Elvis and aliens landing in the Delta. Millie’s stories were tongue-in-cheek with one exception. Princess Diana was serious business. Some bond had formed between the restaurateur and royalty. Millie had cham-pioned Diana in life, and in death she guarded her reputation. No one made fun of Princess Di around Millie and lived to tell about it.
“I know,” I whispered back. “I hate she had to stay at the café, but her head cook was in the hospital. Next time.” I tuned back into the conversation Cece was having with the handsome television host.
“Are you doing a story on the miniature Holy Land and the surrounding gardens?” Tinkie asked Hans. “The exotic plants in the gardens rival any locale in the Deep South. And the curator of the gardens, aside from being a master of miniature construction, is a respected biblical scholar.”
“That’s exactly why I’m here. I’m curious about all of the above. The plantings of natural flora in the Gar-den of Bones is one of the best-kept secrets of the state of Mississippi. Because the proprietor has also included even poisonous plants that are native, the local nick-name for the gardens is the Devil’s Bones.”
“You have gotten the scoop, haven’t you, Hans? I’m looking forward to seeing it all in a couple of hours.” Cece motioned for Hans to take a seat at our table.
Donna Dickerson arrived with a platter of hot croissants filled with scrambled eggs and bacon. We each grabbed one. I wasn’t particularly hungry, but the flaky crust called to me.
“Have you ladies heard that Bruce Springsteen is going to play a concert in Mississippi?” Hans had the latest celebrity scoop and it would be fun to listen to his gossip and stories.
“No.” We all spoke in unison. “Tell us,” I said.
“He’s teamed up with several other stars. It’s going to be a mega fundraiser for hurricane victims.”
“We haven’t had a really bad hurricane in a while.” Cece was quick to point out the obvious. “It would be terrific if they could build up a fund and have something to fall back on when disaster does strike, because we all know it’s an inevitability. And the hurricanes are so big and destructive now.”
“That’s the plan,” Hans said. “The fund will be used for future storms, and not just in Mississippi but all over the nation. The casinos along the Mississippi Gulf Coast are hosting the event and offering a lot of incentives to performers. The tentative lineup is pretty impressive. It’s going to be really, really big.” He tilted his head and studied Cece. “I could get backstage passes for you and your friends if you’d help me do some interviews.” He tsk-tsked. “Your reputation as a fine journalist precedes you, Cece. I know all about the work you do.”
“ She’ll do it!” Tinkie said. “And we’ll need four passes. We can’t leave Millie out.”
“For sure,” Cece said. “Thank you, Hans.”
I tapped my watch—it was time to go. I wanted to get to the destination with some time to learn the lay of the land. I’d heard about the miniature Holy Land for most of my life but had never had a chance to explore the area. From the brochure I’d read, the key cities and events portrayed in the New Testament of the Bible had been crafted in miniature by several biblical scholars.
The Holy Land was built to scale; one yard equaled a mile. A walking tour gave attendees a chance to see the geography of the Middle East and the travels of Jesus of Nazareth. I was eager to take the tour.
Cece chose to ride with Hans—they had a lot to discuss. If he was offering her a chance to interview for a television show, it was an opportunity she needed to explore. Tinkie settled in the front seat and strapped on her seat belt without me nagging at her. She had become very conscious of protecting her baby.
“Hans is very handsome,” she said.
“And a good stepping- stone for Cece to get into TV. Not that she wants to leave Zinnia or the Dispatch. It could be good for Millie, too. Maybe Hans can use her on camera. She would love that.”
“She’d die.” Tinkie shook her head and laughed at the thought. “She would die and love it at the same time.”
Hans and Cece took off before us, and I was in no hurry to catch up. The crisp Easter morning, without humidity, felt like silk sliding over my skin as I drove with the top down. It was one of life’s simple pleasures. “We turn here to the right,” I said as we topped a hill. I almost slammed on the brakes. Some neon monstrosity blinked gold, green, and purple at the top of the next hill.
“What is that?” Tinkie asked.
“Mardi Gras is over. I have no idea. It’s an advertisement of some sort.”
As we drew closer, it was clear that it was, indeed, an advertisement that had been programmed with blink-ing, zipping, dancing lights.
“Oh my goodness. I’ve never seen a billboard that big,” Tinkie said. “Ewww. Look at that tacky thing.”
It was pretty tacky. I slowed so I could read the copy.
THE MISSISSIPPI MALLET GETS THINGS DONE. ACCIDENT, DIVORCE, THE SWEET TASTE OF REVENGE—CALL PERRY SLAY, SOUTH MISSISSIPI’S FOREMOST INJURY LAWYER. IF WE DON’T GET YOU MONEY, YOU DON’T PAY.
“This lawyer advertising is getting out of hand,” Tinkie said.
I pressed the gas pedal to move along. No point causing an accident because we were staring at a god-awful sign.
“Drive faster. It looks like a pawn shop advertisement, not a lawyer. Your daddy would spin in his grave, Sarah Booth.”
That was true. James Franklin Delaney had viewed the right to practice law as sacred. Those in the legal profession were called upon to act with ethics and integrity, always. Advertising for personal injury was not my daddy’s style, though he had certainly had clients who’d been injured by accidents or corporations. Getting justice for those without power was a big part of who he’d been.
We made the turn and left the sign behind. The first tinge of dawn peeked on the eastern horizon and I increased our speed. While it was called sunrise, the service started at six o’clock. We had twenty minutes to make it.
Jitty’s nocturnal visit came back to me. I never mentioned Jitty to anyone, not even my partner and best friend. Jitty was private, and I didn’t want to jinx her continued residency at Dahlia House. But I could relay Jitty’s message—as my own.
“Tinkie, don’t ever worry that you and Oscar won’t be great parents.”
“This is such a privilege, Sarah Booth. We have been entrusted with caring for and teaching a new soul. Our child might cure cancer or save the planet.”
“Or he or she may be a soybean farmer and marry the person he or she loves and raise a passel of children that you can pamper and adore.” I didn’t want her to put that kind of pressure on herself or her child. “The only thing that matters is that the child is whole, happy, and lives in joy. That’s the only important lesson to teach.”
“Do you think I shouldn’t explore religions?”
“I think you should do whatever makes you happy. Just don’t overburden yourself with expectations one way or the other.”
“Good advice.” She pointed to a big sign—this one tasteful—that marked the entrance to the Garden of Bones.
“Why do they call it a garden of bones?” I asked Tinkie.
“The literature says that the land was originally bought for a Confederate cemetery. That’s how the gardens were started. There were plans to make a national cemetery, like they have in Vicksburg, but it never happened. Native and exotic plants from all over the South were brought in to create the gardens, paid for by donations from people who wanted to honor the dead. This was long before the concept of the miniature Holy Land was created. When Dr. Daniel Reynolds, theologian and Ph.D., saw the gardens and the lay of the land, he had a dream where he envisioned the entire concept. He and his wife started work, building first the City of Bethlehem and laying out the travels that Jesus made, according to the record of his life.”
“That’s some undertaking.” I couldn’t help but be impressed with just the idea, not to mention the execution.
“I want my child to know people who are dedicated to principles and values. People who believe in something bigger than themselves. I thought this would be a good place to start.” She grinned. “And I really wanted to see the miniature Holy Land for myself. I’ve heard about it all my life.”
“I’m on board for all of the above.” We’d arrived at a parking lot that was beginning to fill up. I found a place beside Hans’s SUV and Tinkie and I made our way to an outdoor amphitheater just as the sun broke through the morning mist. Golden light filled the area. No matter what happened after that, I would feel like something special had been sent to me.
A tall man with a huge one-eyed dog at his sidestepped to the center of the stage. “Welcome to the Gar-den of Bones and the replica of the Holy Land. We’re here to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ on this Easter Sunday. When the service is over, you’re welcome to tour the gardens and the grounds. I’ll be leading a tour, as will my wife, Paulette.” He pointed to a young woman who stood at the edge of the amphitheater. “Or you can go on your own. For those familiar with the travels of Jesus through the Middle East, the tour is self- explanatory. Some of you come every year. We thank you for your support.”
“That’s Daniel Reynolds,” Tinkie said. “He has a doctorate in history but he never tells anyone that.”
I nodded. Reynolds was a fit and strong man. His daily hours of toiling in the gardens had sculpted him to sinew and bone. The dog who’d taken the stage with him sat lovingly at his feet. I settled into my seat and simply enjoyed the familiar story I’d heard all of my childhood.
Copyright © Carolyn Haines, 2020.