Sticks and Bones by Carolyn Haines is the 17th book in the Sarah Booth Delaney Mystery series (available May 16, 2017).
Private investigator Sarah Booth Delaney and her friends are celebrating New Year’s Eve at the party of the year, a smashing Winter Garden party at the Prince Albert Hotel. It’s a dazzling success … until Frangelica “Sister” McFee walks through the door. Sarah Booth knew Sister in college, before Sister became a bestselling author and moved to New York, and fame and fortune don’t seem to have tempered her arrogance and cruelty.
Sister’s latest book is a memoir about the death of her mother and brother many years ago. Now, a film about the book is in the works, and a film crew has descended upon Zinnia, Mississippi, to tell the complete tale. The film crew soon realizes there may be more to the story than meets the eye—or is told in Sister’s memoir—and they hire Sarah Booth to discover the absolute truth about those deaths so many years ago. But Sarah Booth quickly realizes that someone is desperate to keep the truth hidden and will go to any lengths necessary to protect a long-held secret.
The chill December wind rattles the windows of my bedroom at Dahlia House. Old Man Winter had a grip on my ancestral home, but I’m not about to let the cold keep me from this evening. I lean into the vanity mirror that has reflected at least seven generations of Delaney women and adjust my mother’s diamond and pearl earrings. They’re the perfect accessory for the white tulle dress I’ve chosen. It is by far the most beautiful gown I’ve ever worn, and though I’m a bit long in the tooth to play Cinderella, I feel like I’ve been tapped by a fairy godmother’s wand. I do a little twirl and watch the dress float around me à la Disney animation. It is perfect for the approaching celebration marking the end of one year and the beginning of a new one.
“Glamour is nothing without intrigue, Sarah Booth Delaney.” A husky voice comes from the doorway.
Without looking I know it is Jitty, the ghost who shares the Delaney family home with me. During the Civil War, Jitty was a nanny, but since she’s taken up residence at Dahlia House with me, she is more of a bane. Nurturing is far down her list of talents—way behind tormenting, torturing, annoying, bossing, heckling … Did I say bossing?
I turn slowly and discover that Jitty too is dressed for the occasion. She’s encased from head to toe in a beautiful black and gold sequined gown with matching skullcap that reflects an era long past. I recognize her instantly. My nearly two-hundred-year-old ghost is vamping as Greta Garbo in Mata Hari, a film about a female spy. Oh, Hollywood, gird your loins.
“You look marvelous, darling,” I say. “Where did you steal that gown and that body?”
Jitty is beautiful on her own, but she is something else as Greta. She moves and the gown is like warm, molten gold. There’s no doubt she could worm the most secret information from any man. As she slithers across the room toward me, she is leaking sexuality all over the floor.
“You should practice your interrogation skills, Sarah Booth. I believe they’ll come in handy.”
“Is that a hint that I’m about to have a new case?”
“I don’t give hints.” She looks down her nose at me as I secure the last earring.
I stand up and reach for my wrap. “Good, because I don’t have time for your hints and teases.”
“My, my, my, but don’t you look feminine.” Jitty circles, me. “Sarah Booth, this is the dress that could do it. Uh, huh! This dress could offset that annoying mouth of yours. Wearing this, you should be able to throw a man to the ground and catch some little swimmers. I’ll have me a Delaney heir before the new year even gets a jumpstart.”
Protesting would only make her more outrageous so I pick up my purse and walk to the door. “Happy New Year, Jitty. Don’t wait up, and take care of Pluto and Sweetie Pie.”
“The cat and dog will be just fine. Don’t come back until you’re pregnant,” Jitty calls out, followed by a cackle.
As I get into the car, I look up at my bedroom window. Jitty is there, her silhouette classic Garbo. I’d have to give some serious consideration to what she was up to. Jitty never gives hints, but she often uses symbols. Was my haint trying to tell me something or just having a frolic? Only time would tell.
The drive to town was short but cold. The party was in the Prince Albert Hotel ballroom, and I stepped inside and stopped. “Winter Garden” was the theme, and Harold Erkwell, the best party thrower in the Southeast, had truly created an enchantment with billows of blue silk decorated with twinkling stars forming the ceiling and frosted foliage and tiny white lights everywhere.
The melody of “Unforgettable” swirled through the glittering ballroom on the strings of a small orchestra. Harold had done himself proud. This New Year’s Eve party served a dual purpose—celebrating the coming year and the grand opening of the exclusive boutique hotel.
I was greeted with a chorus of good wishes from my friends and swept into the party where the champagne flowed and the orchestra took me back to the 1940s. I love the dances of that era, and I danced until my shoes were smoking.
At last I leaned against a marble column to catch my breath and watch the glamorous couples spin around the dance floor. The gowns were all white and the men wore white tuxes, giving the party an Old World elegance. I spotted Harold across the room and waved. He was at my side in an instant.
“Happy New Year, Sarah Booth. I’ve been trying to flag you down for a dance, but every time I get a break from my duties as host, I can’t find you.”
“It’s almost a new year. Can you believe how fast time slips by?”
“It’s terrifying how quickly the months roll past.” He nodded toward the far side of the room. “There’s your partner in crime.”
Tinkie Bellcase Richmond, in a flowing gown of white silk with a diamond belt at the waist, was my partner in solving crime at the Delaney Detective Agency. She waved and came toward us. “Sarah Booth, you look beautiful.”
“She does,” Harold said, “and so do you, Tinkie.”
“Ditto,” I said.
“It’s a lovely party, Harold. Millie is having a great time, and Cece has taken enough photos to fill the Zinnia Dispatch for the next year.” Millie Roberts was the proprietress of Millie’s Café, the finest eating establishment in the South, and Cece Dee Falcon was the society editor of the local newspaper.
Cece came toward us, a waiter in tow with a tray of brimming champagne glasses. “Grab a drink everyone. It’s almost time to toast in the new year!” Cece, though she was once Cecil, was the prettiest woman in the room. She wore an off-the-shoulder gown that hugged her slender form. Millie wore a white sheath overlaid with gossamer lace. With her hair swept up, she looked ten years younger.
We each took a glass, and Cece was about to propose a toast when the door of the ballroom burst open in the tradition of all bad fairy tales—the grand entrance of the witch, sorcerer, villain, or in this case, troll. Frangelica “Sister” McFee stepped into the ballroom. Her gaze drilled into Tinkie.
“Well, well, if it isn’t Stinky Bellcase Richmond.” She sniffed the air. “Doesn’t anyone else smell that awful stench?” She curled her lips in a nasty smile.
I’d never seen Tinkie intimidated by anyone, but she took two steps backward before she bumped into me. I tried to push her forward, but she balked.
“Oh, holy Christmas,” I whispered. “It’s Sister McFee.” I pronounced the name properly for the Mississippi social elite—“Sista.”
“What the hell is she doing back in Zinnia?” Cece asked just before she blinded Sister with some flashes of her camera. “Run, Tinkie, run, before she regains her vision.”
Tinkie had finally found her backbone. “I’m not running anywhere.”
“Frangelica,” Harold said, trying to step into the breach. “I had no idea you’d be in Zinnia or I would have sent you an invitation to my party.”
“I figured it was an oversight,” she said. “I hate this Podunk town and this backward county, not to mention this third-world state. And call me Sister, please. Only my classy New York friends call me Frangelica. Right, Stinky?”
I looked around for Oscar, Tinkie’s husband, but didn’t see him. This confrontation was headed south at a rapid pace. Coleman was supposed to arrive before midnight, but he would be too late to stop the bloodshed. Tinkie hated Sister McFee. I didn’t know the details, but my normally cool and collected partner couldn’t talk about Sister without becoming spitting mad. Something had happened in the sorority house at Ole Miss that Tinkie couldn’t forgive or forget.
“Get out.” Tinkie squared her shoulders and walked over to Sister. “Get out right this minute.”
“Or you’ll do what, Stinky? Gas me to death?” She laughed like a sweet Southern belle. “You’re too cute.” She reached to pinch my partner’s cheek, and Tinkie snapped. Her teeth clicked on empty air with an audible sound as she tried to bite Sister’s hand.
“Stinky and rabid,” Sister said with a merry laugh. “Good to know you grew into my predictions.”
“Get out!” Tinkie roared the words.
Harold stepped between the two women and grasped Sister’s arm. “It was so good of you to drop by, and I’m sorry you have to leave.” He propelled her out of the ballroom like a paper sack before a hurricane.
Two hotel staffers closed the doors as soon as the witch’s hasty exit was complete. I put a hand on Tinkie’s trembling shoulder.
“I hate her,” Tinkie said, almost in tears. “She is the biggest biyotch on the face of the planet!”
I couldn’t argue with that assessment so I didn’t try. At last Oscar noticed Millie’s frantic attempts to get his attention, and he hurried over and immediately saw Tinkie’s distress. “Are you okay?” he asked, looking at all of us.
“I’m fine,” Tinkie said, and with those words she seemed to expel the miasma that Sister had cast upon her. “Sister McFee made an appearance.”
“She’s a total bit—” He didn’t finish because Cece elbowed him in the side.
“What is Sister doing in our ‘Podunk town’?” I asked.
“Her new book about the death of her mama and brother has been at the top of the bestseller list for several months now. I heard some gossip about a movie,” Millie said. “I thought it was just big talk, but maybe not. Maybe she’s here because they are going to film.”
“Refresh me on what happened with Mrs. McFee and Son.” Cleo, Sister’s mother, and her son Daryl, better known as Son, had driven into the flooded and raging Sunflower River during a terrible rainstorm five summers earlier. Cleo’s body was found trapped in the car, but Son’s body was never recovered. The presumption was that he had also drowned and then been washed down river. Son had been driving the car.
Millie gave the short version because she had the best memory for local history. “Son was known to use drugs and drink,” Millie said. “His father, Colin, insisted that Son had killed his own mother and himself, either by accident because he was drugged up or in a murder-suicide scenario.”
“What a terrible thing for a father to say about his child,” Tinkie said. She’d regained her composure, and now she was about to lose her temper.
“How could Colin know that to be true?” I asked. “Son’s body wasn’t recovered. The investigators couldn’t do a tox screen. It was raining cats and dogs. It could truly have been an accident.”
Millie held up a finger, considering. “Colin couldn’t know anything for a fact, but it didn’t stop him from publicly blaming Son. And Sister’s book does the same. I’ve heard rumors for the past several weeks that the book has been optioned for a movie.” Millie always had the scoop on Hollywood. She read tabloids religiously, and she consulted Zinnia’s famous psychic and one of my best friends, Madame Tomeeka, a.k.a. my high school chum, Tammy Odom.
“Great,” Tinkie said. “Just great. She’ll be in town for weeks.”
“Colin is running for the U.S. Senate from Mississippi,” Harold pointed out. “This might be a manipulation to gain sympathy votes. You know, the poor guy whose loaded son killed his wife.”
“Didn’t he marry, like, six weeks after Cleo was buried? She was barely cold.” Tinkie was no shrinking violet in the arena of gossip.
Before anyone could respond, the bandleader rapped for attention on his music stand. “And the countdown begins! Ten, nine, eight…”
The doors opened and Coleman walked into the room.
“Seven, six, five, four, three…” The bandleader marked off the time.
Coleman strode toward our little group.
“Two, one! Happy New Year!”
Harold swept me into his arms and laid a kiss on me that I wasn’t likely to forget for the next twenty years. “Happy New Year, Sarah Booth.”
“Happy New Year to you, Harold.” I was flushed and breathless.
“You know, your aunt Loulane would tell you that whatever you do on this day, you’ll do for the rest of the year.” And he kissed me again.
I’d forgotten how powerful Harold’s kisses could be until my thumb gave a strange tingle.
Just as he released me, I felt a hand on my shoulder. When I turned, Coleman lifted my face with a gentle hand. “In that case, I need to greet the new year myself.” He kissed me too, but very chastely on the cheek.
“Happy New Year,” I said to both men, because I was too flustered to think of anything original to say.
Tinkie at last stepped up to defend me. “That’s enough, Romeos. Now let’s forget about all the McFees and celebrate the new year. Oscar, can we contribute heavily to whoever is running for that Senate seat against Colin? Surely he doesn’t stand a dog’s chance of winning.” But a tiny line of worry tugged at her lips.
When, an hour later, I managed to pull her away, I asked, “What’s wrong?”
“It’s Sister. Why is she back in town? Do you really think it’s a movie deal?”
“I don’t know, but I’m positive we’ll find out sooner rather than later.” I grabbed two glasses of champagne from a passing waiter. “Don’t let her ruin this evening for you.”
“You have no idea how much I loathe her.”
“Why? I mean she’s awful, but you handle awful people all the time.”
Tinkie only shook her head, and her blue eyes teared up. “I have my reasons.”
“Tinkie, I’m your best friend. You can tell me anything.”
She shook her head harder. “I can’t. I’ve never told anyone and I can’t. Just know that Frangelica is the meanest bit—”
She never got to finish because Scott Hampton and his band, including Cece’s squeeze, Jaytee, burst into the party. “Happy New Year,” Scott said grabbing me and Tinkie and pressing a kiss on each of us. “And the new year is off to a rip-snorting beginning.”
Before we could finish our conversation we were pulled to the dance floor. It was impossible to stop Scott’s infectious good spirits, so I let go and partied as hard as I could, dancing again and again with Scott, Harold, Coleman, and a dozen other men.
As Jitty would have told me had she been there, magical evenings don’t come around all that often. I took full advantage.
* * *
Near Year’s Day rang itself in with a hangover from too much champagne, but the wonderful memories from Harold’s party offset the Thor-like headache. I’d picked up the phone to call Harold and thank him for the lovely evening when I glanced at the time: 11:10. I was due to meet Tinkie and the gang at Millie’s Café for the traditional Southern New Year’s Day fare of black-eyed peas cooked with hog jowl or a ham bone, greens, and cornbread. The peas were for luck and the greens for money. I wasn’t about to miss out on luck or money.
I jumped in the shower, slapped on makeup and clothes, loaded my hound dog and cat into the antique Mercedes roadster, and tore down the driveway. The day was cold and I left the windows rolled up, much to Sweetie Pie’s consternation. She kept nosing the cold glass, but I wouldn’t give in. If I let the window down so she could hang her head out, my eyelashes would freeze and break off.
“Millie said you and Pluto could hang out in her office,” I told the critters. “She made a special dish for you both. A pesky-pet celebration for the new year. Roscoe will probably be there too.” Roscoe was an evil little dog I’d ended up with while working a case. Harold adopted him—and adored him. Every vile thing Roscoe did, Harold enjoyed.
I whipped into the parking lot. The parked cars told me everyone was already there. Millie had closed the café for us to have a private lunch. She would reopen at two for her regulars. A lot of people didn’t cook and relied on Millie’s delicious and nutritious offerings to keep themselves fed.
“Happy New Year. Sorry I’m late,” I sang out as I rushed into the warmth of the small café that faced an otherwise empty Main Street. The most delicious smells made me sigh with pleasure.
“Champagne?” Harold asked wickedly as he approached me with a crystal stem and a bottle.
“Back!” I made the sign of the cross. “Coffee. Please.”
Everyone laughed and Cece pushed a mug filled with strong black coffee into my hand. “Caffeine and something greasy and filled with carbohydrates will do the trick.”
Tinkie nudged me into a chair and Millie put buttered toast and a side of hot grits in front of me. “The New Year’s food is on the way,” Millie said. “Eat this now and you’ll feel better.”
Of course she was right. As soon as I ate, my stomach settled and the little man with a sledgehammer tapping on my optic nerve stopped. “Thank you,” I told them.
“Too bad you can’t have a toast with us,” Harold teased.
“I can toast. There’s no law that says it has to be alcohol.” I raised my cup of coffee and clinked with my friends as Oscar proclaimed the word for the new year to be “positivity.”
The lunch at Millie’s had become a tradition since I’d returned to Zinnia. I looked around the room with gratitude. I was rich in friends. Good friends, and that was the greatest gift of all. But people were missing.
“Where’s Coleman, DeWayne, Scott, and Jaytee?” Cece almost never left Jaytee’s side.
“They’re coming,” Cece said. “I told the band to relax a little bit. After Harold’s party they went back and closed down their club. The work of a musician is never done.”
“Or a lawman,” Millie threw in. “But here they all come.”
Two cars pulled into the parking lot and the missing men entered the café to another round of hugs, greetings, and a toast.
Surveying the smiling faces of my friends, I saw the ghosts of the past standing close behind them. My parents, Aunt Loulane, the people who’d loved and cared for me. But I pushed those sad thoughts aside and lifted my mug. “To the best friends ever.”
As we all raised our drinking vessels to toast, the door of the café slammed open so hard the jangling bell fell to the floor. Tinkie gasped as Sister McFee stepped inside. The Wicked Witch of the South grand entrance redux, and she eyed Tinkie like she was Toto.
“Well, well, if it isn’t a little celebration, and they’ve let Stinky attend. What’s with you? Have you all gone nose blind?”
Oscar put his glass down and stepped toward Sister. “Either apologize to my wife or get out.”
“This is a private party,” Millie said. “You should leave.”
“The door was unlocked. If you want privacy, maybe you should lock your door.” Sister sauntered deeper into the room and picked up the bowl of grits I’d been eating. She sniffed it. “Someone loves clogged arteries, don’t they?”
“Leave now, before I arrest you.” Coleman grasped her arm.
“For what? Entering a diner? Oh please, you might humiliate me by tattling to the tabloids that I set foot in a place like this, but you can’t arrest me.”
“This is a private party. You’re trespassing.” Coleman was deadly serious and Sister was a fool if she didn’t heed his warning.
Cece pushed her camera in Sister’s face and took at least a dozen photos. She checked the shots. “Very flattering. Have you checked your nose lately? I think I have photographic evidence you’ve been practicing obsequiousness with someone.”
I couldn’t help it; I burst out laughing. “Good one, Cece.”
“What do you want, Frangelica?” Tinkie was the only one to ask the obvious.
“I was checking this dump for a location for my movie, but I can see that if I brought a camera in here, the lens would fog with grease.”
“Making a movie of that awful book that paints your dead brother as a murderer?” Tinkie asked. “The dead brother who can’t defend himself against your unfounded accusations?”
“So you’ve read my book.” Sister grinned. “Like millions of others.”
I put a hand on Tinkie to keep her from jumping the table and tearing Sister’s throat out. The animosity between the two was palpable.
Coleman tightened his grip on Sister and escorted her to the door. When she was outside, he closed and locked the door and closed the blinds. “I took the trash out,” he said to Tinkie, who burst into tears.
“She is just so damn mean,” Tinkie said, wiping her cheeks angrily. “I shouldn’t let her get to me, but she is the meanest person I’ve ever known.”
“She’s pretty mean,” Cece said. Her wicked grin told me she wasn’t above a bit of mischief. “So let’s pay her back in kind.”
“Do you have a plan?” I asked.
“Oh, you bet I do. We’ll plot together at a later date. I think Millie is ready to put the food on the table.”
In ten minutes we’d brought out the holiday fare from the kitchen, formed a buffet, and filled our plates. Sister and her attitude were forgotten. We laughed and joked and told stories of the past year. Scott rubbed my short—but growing—hair and thanked me and Tinkie again for saving his blues club. Everyone put Oscar’s word, “positivity,” to good use.
We’d just dug into the pièce de résistance, Millie’s incredible Amaretto chocolate cheesecake, when we heard the sound of a glasspack muffler or a motorcycle in front of the café. A loud knock followed.
Millie went to the door saying, “We’ll be open to the public at two—” She stopped in midsentence when she saw a tall, very handsome man wearing leather everything. Right behind him was a strikingly beautiful woman, also in black leather.
“Oh my god!” Millie squealed. “It’s Marco St. John and his wife, Lorraine. Come in, come in.” Millie ushered them into the room and to the table, where Harold pushed forward two more chairs. “Have a seat and join us in a New Year’s Day celebration.”
“Smells delicious,” Marco said. “I love Southern cooking.”
Lorraine walked around the café examining everything. “This is perfect,” she said. “The light, the ambience … It’s the place to bring Cleo alive. It’s the perfect setting. This is a place she’d come and talk about her ideas for Mississippi education. She’d meet with the man on the street. She’d mingle with the real people here. Not at that old mausoleum they call Evermore.”
“Cleo McFee often stopped by for breakfast or coffee and a slice of pie,” Millie said. “She was a lovely woman.”
“Who are those people?” I whispered to Tinkie.
“He’s a movie director. She’s a cinematographer. They’re the hottest film couple in Tinsel Town. Oblique, Touched, Fever Moon, Morgan Creek, Dead at Midnight.”
I knew the movies and they were some of my favorites. “What are they doing in Zinnia?” I asked.
“I’m afraid I know exactly what this is about,” Tinkie said. “It’s Sister’s book, Dead and Gone. They really are making a movie.” She sounded defeated. “I thought it was all a big bluff, but it isn’t. She’s going to have a movie made of her book. How is it possible that someone who is such a bully could be so talented?”
Oscar brought his wife another glass of champagne and gave me a concerned look. I was worried too.
Marco and Lorraine dug into the holiday food with gusto. The moviemakers were surprisingly open about everything except the name of the movie. “We can’t say,” Marco said. “Once the deal is signed, we’ll tell you everything, because we’re going to need your help.”
While Marco and Lorraine ate, we peppered them with questions. Finally, Marco pushed back from the table. “Thank you for such wonderful food, but I’m here on business. I’m looking for Sarah Booth Delaney.”
I raised my hand. “Here.”
“May I have a word with you? Outside?”
I followed him out the door amid a buzz of speculation. When the door closed, Marco leaned against the café wall. “I want to hire you to find out what really happened to Son McFee and his mother, Cleo.”
“Are you deaf?” He wasn’t being mean. He really thought I had a hearing problem.
“No, I’m not deaf, but why hire me?”
“You’ve read Frangelica’s book?”
I rolled my eyes. “No. But you can bet it’s a pack of lies.”
“Exactly. I’m making a movie of what happened based on the book. But I have a hunch there’s more to this story. I want to find out what happened to cause the accident, and to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what happened to Son McFee.”
“You’re really interested in the truth?” I asked.
“Lorraine and I have our suspicions, but we want the truth. And I’m very serious.” He brought out his wallet and withdrew a personal check for ten thousand dollars. “This is a retainer,” he said. “I’ll hire you as a location scout for the movie, so that will give you access to everyone and everything.” He pulled the check back. “But this could be dangerous.”
“Dangerous?” I realized I did sound deaf. “I mean this is a cold case. Do you really think there’s danger?”
“Someone damaged one of Lorraine’s cameras. It was deliberate sabotage.”
“For some reason it’s very important to Colin and Sister McFee to make Son a villain. My experience as a filmmaker tells me that when someone promotes one and only one version of an unproved truth, there’s a reason for it. Colin has a lot to lose and something tells me he isn’t the kind of man to go down without a fight. Are you still interested?”
This was a case I wanted. I hadn’t been close with Son in college. He was a year or so older than me, but he’d always been pleasant. Where Sister was a total B, Son had been funny and kind. It might be true that Son was drunk or on drugs and lost control of the car. But right at the entrance to the Sunflower River Bridge? It didn’t feel right. It never had.
“Let me talk to my partner,” I said.
“Yes, we need Mrs. Bellcase on board. Tell her I’ll give you both walk-on parts.”
“She’d love that.” Maybe Marco could cheer up my friend with a chance to be in a movie. It would be the best revenge ever against meanie Sister. “Let me ask her. I’ll be right back.”
Five minutes later, Delaney Detective Agency was on the payroll of Black Tar Productions. The new year was off to an auspicious start.
Copyright © 2017 Carolyn Haines.
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Carolyn Haines is the author of the Sarah Booth Delaney Mysteries, including Greedy Bones, Bone Appetit, and Bones of a Feather. She is the recipient of both the Harper Lee Distinguished Writing Award and the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence. Before writing fiction, she worked for several years as a journalist, and first visited the Delta, the setting for her mysteries, to do a newspaper story on Parchman State Prison. Born and raised in Mississippi, she now lives in Alabama on a farm with more dogs, cats, and horses than she can possibly keep track of.