Rock-a-Bye Bones is the 12th book in the Sarah Booth Delaney Mystery series (Available May 17, 2016).
Sarah Booth Delaney knows the perfect way to begin recovering from both the recent attack on Scott Hampton’s blues club and her broken heart. She’s going to host a Thanksgiving feast for all of her friends at her ancestral home in Zinnia, Mississippi. But one bitterly cold night with the holiday just around the corner, Sarah Booth awakens to the insistent ring of her doorbell. She opens the door to find a newborn baby in a basket sitting on her front porch…and a pool of blood slowly seeping out from the basket. Before she can respond, an engine guns and a dark vehicle takes off.
After the police and a doctor ensure the baby is otherwise safe and healthy, Sarah Booth calls Tinkie Richmond, her partner at the Delaney Detective Agency. They know they need to do everything they can to find the baby's mother…even if they are starting to fall in love with the baby themselves. But as they track the baby's mother, Sarah Booth soon begins to suspect the woman might have been in danger; in fact, she might have been running for her life. And following in the woman's footsteps, Sarah Booth might find her own life on the line next.
Thanksgiving is no time to leave a desperate woman alone in a haunted house with a knife and a giant squash. Pumpkin spatter covers every horizontal and vertical surface in the spacious kitchen. I heft the five-inch blade and advance on the nine-pound vegetable that defies me. I intend to magically turn the gourd into homemade pumpkin pie, but so far, things are not working out the way I envisioned.
“I’m a lot better with jack-o-lanterns than pies,” I say to my red tick hound, Sweetie Pie Delaney, who wisely sleeps under the kitchen table, an area still free of pumpkin guts. She lifts her bloodshot eyes to send a sympathetic stare, and then dozes off. She knows that if I make a mess of the pies, she’ll have a treat. Sweetie is not a finicky hound, but it happens that pumpkin pie is one of her favorites. And she doesn’t care if it’s baked into a flakey homemade crust or tumbled out of a bowl.
A shutter bangs against the side of the house, reminding me to call a repairman to make a few necessary improvements before Old Man Winter comes to Zinnia, Mississippi, for an extended visit. Outside Dahlia House, my family plantation in the heart of Sunflower County, the wind is sweeping across the barren cotton fields. The harvest is in, and winter is coming. But in the warm, cinnamon-smelling kitchen, I am looking forward to a festive Thanksgiving dinner with my best friends in the world. I am playing host—a new role for me.
I turn to the recipe and study it harder. Always the overachiever, I have two large pumpkins. Part of one is baking in the oven, but I have another big one on my cutting board. I have been assured by Millie Roberts, owner of Zinnia’s most popular café, that pumpkin puree from scratch is far superior to canned. I’m beginning to have second thoughts. What sounded so easy coming from Millie’s mouth has turned into an orange orgy in my kitchen.
Putting the knife down, I decide on a break. Cinnamon and maple-flavored coffee in hand, I step out on the front porch. Sweetie and my black cat, Pluto, are at my side. White wicker rockers offer a comfortable seat, but I settle on the steps. Here I can look straight down the driveway. The sycamore trees that line the shell drive are leafless. The white skinlike bark, peeling in places, always makes me sad. November, like the gloaming, can be a melancholy time. Endings. I’m not good with endings.
Soon, though, the barren fields that stretch to the horizon will sprout new growth. Spring will return. Another cycle. This year, I have determined to make the holidays joyful.
I’ve invited all of my Zinnia friends to have Thanksgiving dinner at Dahlia House. Normally I enjoy the holidays at Tinkie’s or Harold’s—the two designated party givers in the Delta. This year, I want my home to be the party location. November marks the anniversary of my return to Sunflower County. When I’d come home two years ago, tail between my legs, I was destitute. Dahlia House was on the tax assessor’s list to be auctioned off for back taxes. Since my return, I’d opened a successful private eye business, Delaney Detective Agency, hooked up with the best partner on the planet, Tinkie Bellcase Richmond, and acquired three horses, a dog, a feline ruler of the universe, and one very badass haint named Jitty. All in all, a very busy time.
The first months I’d been home, Dahlia House had felt cold and empty. My parents had died in a car accident when I was only twelve. My aunt Loulane, my father’s sister, had raised me until I went to college. Not so long ago, she passed away, too. While I was adjusting to the failure of my acting career in New York, my first breakup with Graf Milieu, and the return home in bitter Broadway theatrical defeat, I’d also found Jitty, my resident ghost.
Jitty is part comforting parent, a big dollop of Hell Hound, and an equal measure of butt-kicker and provoker. She links me to the long history of Dahlia House, the Delaney family, and a system of morals and values instilled in me at an early age. From my father, I learned about justice and fair play. From my mother, I was gifted with a firm resolve to never be a victim, never accept defeat, and never, ever betray a friend.
When my parents were alive, Dahlia House was a holiday destination. My mother loved parties and she loved to dance. She had luncheons, coffees, drink gatherings, formal dinners, game get-togethers—whatever sounded fun.
My favorite memories, though, centered around Thanksgiving and the preparation of the traditional foods that define the holiday. My mother was an exceptional cook, though never a slave to the kitchen. Roasted turkey, dressing, fresh green beans, Brussels sprouts and chestnuts, ambrosia, and pumpkin pies were always on the menu. Even as a little girl, I was allowed to help with the food preparation. I can still remember my mother watching closely as I chopped celery for the dressing.
“Chop it fine, Sarah Booth. No big chunks.” And she would lean over me, her hair tickling my face and filled with the scent of Opium, so light and yet enticing. No matter how I try, I’ll never be able to duplicate those holidays when I was wrapped so tightly in the protection and love of my parents. This Thanksgiving I want to bring Dahlia House to life the way my mother did.
Only one small problem. My mother was a born chef and party giver. I, on the other hand, am a much better guest at someone else’s table. Thinking of tables and guests, I slipped back inside the house. I had to get back in the kitchen and accomplish something other than mayhem. When I returned to the scene of my defeat, I inhaled deeply. At least my kitchen smelled like Thanksgiving.
“Good lard almighty!” A whiff of gardenias came with the outraged voice. Jitty has arrived. I close my eyes and bite my lip. Though I wouldn’t trade her for anything, she is a bane. If she says one word about dying ovaries, I am going to chase her around the kitchen with my knife. Of course she’s dead already so it’s an empty threat, but it would still give me great satisfaction.
“What have you done to the kitchen?” Jitty asked. She sashayed into the room in the most outrageous outfit I’ve yet to see her wear—a black and white nun’s habit.
“I’m making dessert, and while the kitchen may be a mess, it isn’t nearly as bad as that getup you’re wearing. You are officially cut off from any more Whoopi Goldberg movies.” My threats were empty and we both knew it. “Get out of the house right this minute. If you draw a lightning strike down on you by pretending to be a nun, I don’t want any part of it.” I edged away from her. “What order do you belong to, the Holy Tormenters, or maybe Our Lady of the Aggravators? No religious leader in her right mind would let you into a convent.”
“I’m not just any nun, I’m Mother Superior, and you’d best be listenin’ to my advice, Missy.” She pointed at the chunks of pumpkin and the blob of guts and seeds. “That’s supposed to turn out to be a pie?”
“Pumpkin pies.” I am a bit hesitant to admit that a pie was my goal. What I have is a pan full of rubbery and disgusting baked pumpkin chunks. The slimy guts are spilling off the table and half out the garbage can. Add to that the flour dusting the floor and the eggs I meant to whip but accidentally dropped, and I have to admit, I’ve made a remarkable mess.
“You did all of this to make a pumpkin pie?” She honestly can’t take it all in. “Let me know if you ever decide to make cream puffs and I’ll take out extra insurance on Dahlia House.”
“That’s so funny I forgot to laugh.” I should be used to Jitty’s acerbic commentary, but she can still get me riled, which is great fun for her.
“Have you ever heard of canned pumpkin?” Jitty is appalled. “Seriously, Sarah Booth, this looks like the jolly orange pumpkin exploded in here. How about 911, call Millie’s Café and beg her to come to the rescue.”
“What’s with the nun getup?” I’ve learned to keep the focus on Jitty and off me.
“I’m doing my part to get that difficult Delaney womb filled up with an heir to Dahlia House.”
“And you intend to accomplish that by dressing as a nun?” Not even I could follow that logic.
“I’m the ultimate mother,” she said. “Now listen up. I’m about to lay some wisdom on you.”
I had to think fast to avoid another lecture on how my biological clock was ticking and how my ovaries were turning black and shriveling with each passing second, not to mention the Delaney penchant for tilted wombs and bad judgment in the romance department. To Jitty, an heir was the only thing that mattered. Since I’d recently broken off my engagement, she was doubling down on dire fallopian predictions. “It would be a lot more helpful if you would roll out the pie crust. So far, I haven’t had a lot of luck with that.”
She took a look in the bowl where I’d mixed flour, butter, a little salt, and some cold water—just as the recipe called for. Instead of workable dough that could be rolled thin and placed in the bottom of a pie pan, I’d achieved a glutinous mass of … paste. And it kept making noises, as if it were alive, possibly suffering from a bad case of gas.
“Baby girl, that lump of glue is beyond my help. Divine intervention can’t save that mess. Fact is, I’d burn it before it turns into a golem. I think it may have a heartbeat.” She backed away from it.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” I picked up the bowl of lumpy, wet dough and realized, for once, Jitty was not exaggerating. A little bubble of air escaped the goop, followed by a burp. That was enough for me. I used the big wooden spoon and scraped it into the trash. If it came to life, it could do so at the end of the driveway, not in the kitchen.
“Maybe I should call a priest to give it the last rites.” Jitty was so pleased with her wit she could hardly contain her glee.
“Do that. It’ll be worth watching, since you can’t use a phone.” My illusions of being the master chef were taking a serious drubbing. Thank god for Millie. She could bake a pie with a snap of her fingers. I could call her if I got desperate.
“Is this a bad time to discuss what I’ve come to talk about?” Jitty asked.
“Depends on what you want to discuss.” The fact that she asked didn’t bode well. “If it’s about sperm or ovaries, this is definitely not a good time.”
“Which man you gone put at the head of that holiday table, Sarah Booth? Being the hostess, seems to me like you’ve got yourself in a pickle. You’ll be at the foot of the table by the kitchen door, but who’s gonna sit at the head, which implies a whole lot. The man you put there is the one leading the pack for your affections.”
She had a point, and I had a solution. “Harold will sit at the head of the table.” I hadn’t given it a lot of thought, but this was the perfect seating arrangement. Harold Erkwell had once asked for my hand—and put a four-carat diamond on my ring finger. At the time, I didn’t know him well, and his tactics seemed a bit ham-fisted. Since I’d been home, though, Harold and I had developed an abiding friendship. And he was, hands down, the best party giver in six states. “Harold is always the host. Coleman and Scott can each sit on a side.” I was very pleased with my resolution.
“You can’t keep all those men dangling like meat in a processing plant. They keep hangin’, there’s gonna be an awful stink.”
“Jitty! That is a truly awful visual. I may have to scour my brain with Comet to clean it out.”
Her soft, low chuckle told me how pleased she was. When I looked at her again, she’d removed the wimple and was shaking out her dark Afro. “That headgear gets hot.”
“Not as hot as the pit of hell, which is where you’re destined for impersonating a nun.”
She only laughed. “Thanksgiving is hot on our heels. You should throw out all that mess you made and order everything from Millie’s.”
She had a point, but I wasn’t defeated yet. “I’ll give it one more try. Most girls learn to cook from their mothers, but I never really had that chance.”
Jitty instantly softened. “Aunt Loulane tried, Sarah Booth, but you didn’t want to learn from her. You missed your mother, and Loulane was wise enough to know she could never fill those shoes.”
“Yes, she was very wise, and to this day I remember most of her adages. As she used to say, ‘Time heals all wounds and brings wisdom to those who seek.’” Aunt Loulane had a saying for every occasion. While I’d hated hearing them when I was a teenager, now I used them with relish.
“Why don’t you give me a hand with the cooking?” I asked Jitty. “Surely during the time when you were alive with great-great-great-grandma Alice you were a good cook.”
“I’m drawin’ a blank—”
“Jitty, give me some tips on pie crust.”
“Can’t do it, Sarah Booth. It’s time for vespers.” And with that she was gone. And I’d learned something new about the ghost who shared my home. She didn’t like to cook. She was, for all of her one hundred and fifty years, a thoroughly modern ghost.
My failure with the pie undeniable, I sacked up the sad remains and took them out to the road for trash collection early the next morning. I stamped down the driveway, my breath fogging in the crisp air. Above me, the stars kept the black night company. The acres of land belonging to Dahlia House spread on either side of the long drive, and I stopped when a startled herd of deer broke in front of me and leaped the pasture fence. In a moment they were absorbed by the darkness.
When I’d left the trash, I jogged back toward the house and my warm bed. Before I made a second assault on pie production, I needed a trip to the Pig, as we called the local Piggly Wiggly grocery, to buy more flour and butter and two cans of pumpkin already processed to perfect pie consistency. And perhaps I would call Millie in the morning and see if she could give me some tips.
I washed the dishes, prepared the coffeemaker to turn itself on at six a.m., and went to bed. I had plenty of time to master the art of pie baking. Even if I didn’t, my friends would step up. I had many blessings to count, and as I walked through the dining room, I started on my list.
I caught a glimpse of a terrifying specter in the mirror above the sideboard and let out a squawk of fright before I realized it was only me. The new growth of my hair, which gave me the appearance of Woodstock, the bird in the Snoopy cartoons, was standing straight on end and coated in flour. Even though Tinkie had taken me to “her girl” at the most expensive salon in the Delta, my hair was still a terrible mess. I’d caught it on fire in the last case we’d worked, and I was very lucky that it was only hair that burned. It could have been so much worse.
Still chuckling at my fright, I went to my room and promptly keeled over in bed. I’d entered a dreamless state of deep slumber when I heard the doorbell ring. I looked at my phone on the bedside table—three o’clock in the morning. It had to be a dream. Though I heard the chime again, and even Sweetie set up a bark, my attempts at baking had exhausted me. I rolled over, pulled the pillow over my head, and refused to get up.
The creak of a squeaky wheel finally drove me to wakefulness. When I found out who was interrupting my sleep, I was going to have a hissy fit all over them.
Creak, creak, creak! I opened one eye to catch a glimpse of a woman in a black minidress pushing one of the huge old baby prams with the folding leather top.
The only thing I could think was Rosemary’s Baby and I leaped from the bed to land on the far side of the room. “Get out!” I hissed. I’d watched the movie with my mother and a group of my friends when I was in sixth grade, and the image of that black perambulator sent a primal chill through me. “Get out!”
“It’s just a baby.” The woman pushed the carriage slowly toward me. “Just an innocent baby.”
A shaft of moonlight came through the window and I saw Mia Farrow’s shorn head—that looked too much like my own. “You have to get out of here.” I gauged the distance to the doorway and wondered if I could leap over the bed and make it to the door before she got me—I had no doubt her intention was to do terrible things to me.
“Remember, Sarah Booth, it’s only a baby.”
At last the Mia image faded to reveal Jitty. I didn’t always like her antics, but she’d never before awakened me in the dead of night while impersonating an actress who played the role of a woman who gave birth to the Antichrist.
“You have taken this one step too far,” I said through gritted teeth. “Not only did you wake me out of a dead sleep, you scared me into next year. I’ve missed Thanksgiving and Christmas and all I have to show for it is my stubbed and bleeding toe.” I had smashed my toe on the bed frame, which didn’t help my mood.
“Answer the damn doorbell, Sarah Booth. I wouldn’t have to resort to extraordinary measures if you didn’t sleep like you’d fallen into a forever coma.”
“The one that rang about two minutes ago. And rang again. And—”
Before she could finish, the bell rang nine times in rapid succession. “What the hell?” I found a pair of jeans, pulled them on, then trotted barefoot down the stairs to the front door. Before I opened it, I turned on the light and stared into the empty night. There was no one on the porch.
“Screw that,” I said, flipping off the light.
“At least open the door,” Jitty said. She was suddenly right behind me.
“There’s no one—”
“Sarah Booth, please open the door. Right this red-hot minute.”
Jitty seldom said please so I opened the door fast. I was in the process of slamming it closed again when what I’d seen registered on me. A white wicker bassinet had been pushed close against the front door. A pale pink blanket covered the basket, hiding whatever was hidden inside. More ominous was the pool of blood that seeped from the basket and slowly crossed the bitter cold boards of the porch.
Before I could do anything, a vehicle’s engine fired and a dark-colored Ford pickup, older model, sped away from Dahlia House at breakneck speed.
Copyright © 2016 Carolyn Haines.
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CAROLYN HAINES is the author of the Sarah Booth Delaney Mysteries. She is the recipient of both the Harper Lee Distinguished Writing Award and the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence. Born and raised in Mississippi, she now lives in Semmes, Alabama on a farm with more dogs, cats and horses than she can possibly keep track of.