Authors: Catie Rhodes
A Peri Jean Mace Novella
Copyright © 2013 Catie Rhodes.
All rights reserved.
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Cover artwork by Kimberlee Ketterman Edgar/Darkstar Artwork
Cover Typography by Melinda Van Lone
Content Editing by Annetta Ribken
Copy Editing by Jennifer Wingard
Proofreading by Julie Glover
First Printing, 2013
Black Opal/ Catie Rhodes. — 1st ed.
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For my husband and family.
Thank you for loving me just because.
My throat burned from too many cigarettes, but that didn’t stop me from lighting my last one. The acrid smoke filling my vintage Chevy Nova fit my foul mood. Few kinds of trouble are more angst-ridden than boyfriend troubles.
“It’s all your fault,” I croaked at the troublemaking slip of paper fluttering in the fresh morning breeze. The offending piece of paper came from Wolfgang Puck’s Five Sixty in Dallas and listed two of every item, including champagne. The tip and final total were written in Dean’s blocky handwriting. I didn’t know who he took there, but he sure as hell didn’t take me.
Maybe I need to back up. This all started when Dean Turgeau’s father, who I never heard of before yesterday, broke his arm and had a heart attack scare. My boyfriend of six months took leave from his job as a sheriff’s deputy in Gaslight City, Texas, and rushed to his hometown in South Louisiana. A few hours later, I got a hysterical phone call from him. Well, hysterical for Dean, anyway. For once, he sounded like he didn’t know exactly how to control a situation.
“You gotta help me.” He paused, breathing hard.
“What is it? Did you have an accident?” Fear kicked my imagination into high gear. Perhaps this was really Dean’s ghost calling me. After all, my connection with the spirit world created more problems than it solved.
“No, no. It’s my wallet. I forgot it, and I just spent my emergency cash on gas. I have no ID, no credit cards, nothing.” His voice wavered on the last word.
I nodded and then remembered he couldn’t see me. This wasn’t about the wallet at all. It was about Dean, the most in-control man I’d ever met, losing control. No doubt he feared losing his father. Caring for my terminally ill grandmother, the only family I had left, made me hyper-aware of such things.
“Hey, it’s all right. I’ll overnight it to you. Use that key you gave me,” I said. Dean had given me an extravagantly wrapped key to his house. Now would be the perfect time to break it in. Whatever response I expected was a far cry from the one I got: complete, total, and utter silence. After a long enough pause for me to regret offering, Dean finally stuttered out a few words.
“Y-yeah. I guess that’s fine.” He trailed off but came back sounding more confident. “Sure. Do that.” He rattled off an address in Louisiana. Busy writing it down, I never stopped to think about his weird reaction until I found the receipt.
My search for a box and tape took me to the detached garage. The first thing I saw in there sent my suspicions into a tailspin. Dean’s vintage Smokey and the Bandit era Trans-Am sat in the middle of the stifling little room. The sight threw me for a loop, the kind where I felt my stomach fall thirteen floors. The Trans-Am was—to the best of my knowledge—Dean’s only car. So what did he drive to Louisiana? Looking for some answers, or maybe just being nosy, I slid into the Trans-Am and opened the glove box. The receipt fluttered out, setting the stage for a mega meltdown.
Seething, I wrapped the wallet like a gift, complete with white paper and a curlicue green ribbon. I resisted the urge to put the receipt in the box like a cherry on top of Dean’s wallet. Then I packed a bag, got in my car, and drove most of the night.
Now, I was close to the end of my three-hundred-mile journey with no clear idea what I wanted to say to Dean. My pissed off level hovered in the red. Between that and eating no food since I found the receipt, my stomach sizzled and burned. I felt miserable and would be until Dean Turgeau gave me an explanation.
The lush South Louisiana landscape unfurled like a flower, growing more exotic and mysterious as I drove deeper into the state. But I had a hard time enjoying it. The trees draped with Spanish moss brought to mind romance novel covers, which just added to the whole pissed off thing. Views stretching out into tree-studded bayous looked like postcards advertising an enchanting weekend getaway. My mind supplied endless ideas about who Dean really came down here to see.
After all, he left his prized 1980s Trans-Am in his garage back in Gaslight City. Maybe his other girlfriend didn’t like vintage cars. Maybe she drove them here.
What a fool you are not to have seen this coming, Peri Jean Mace.
Feeling foolish nestled at the root of my anger. I did everything I could not to let people make a fool of me.
Look at me now.
I thought I learned to read Dean over the past six months. So much for my intuition. Now I saw the error in my thinking. When a man, one I thought I might love, gave me a key to his house in a gold box with a purple ribbon tied around it, that really meant I needed to watch out.
How could you be so dumb?
I crumpled the receipt and shoved it in my pocket. I’d know next time.
I exited I-10 south of Baton Rouge, still practicing how I’d confront Dean, and did a double take at the change in scenery. Clear-cut farmland, the ground turned to expose the fertile black soil, stretched into the distance, and a white haze of humidity floated like a premonition on the horizon. Roadside signs advertising historic plantations loomed over dilapidated shacks. Boarded up gas stations, their wood grayed and bowed, lingered forgotten in overgrown fields. Glimpses of the grand Mississippi twinkled in the distance, peeking through the dense trees.
So this is where Dean grew up, in this mysterious world of shadows and contrast. This is where he learned how to love, hate, and buy expensive, clandestine dinners for persons unknown.
Mind reeling, I pulled into a gas station to buy more cigarettes, ask directions, and fuel up.
Back in my car, I drove along at a snail’s pace, looking for a white brick mailbox.
“You can’t miss it, ma’am. Biggest mailbox I ever seen.” The gas station attendant’s drawl rolled over the vowels in a way mine didn’t and made me feel farther from home than all the miles of highway put together.
The road followed the bend of the river, undulating and winding lazily along. My impatience to get this show on the road made me want to drive faster, but I didn’t dare. Rounding a sharp curve, I came up behind a young woman, maybe a teenager, walking in the grass on the roadside.
What the hell?
I pulled into the middle of the road to give her plenty of room.
This chick looked like she’d gotten on the wrong side of something or other. Black streaks and cuts ran up and down her legs, and the bottoms of her bare feet matched the road. I spotted a gash on one of them. She held her head at a funny angle, as though it hurt. It didn’t take a degree in rocket science to know something was wrong.
I slowed even more, traveling at nearly a crawl. The desire to stop and offer my help was almost too strong to resist. Common sense kept me from acting on it.
I am a woman traveling alone in a strange state, in a strange town.
Leaving the address with my terminally ill grandmother didn’t count when she was three hundred miles away. I drew alongside the girl and leaned over the seat to look at her. She walked staring straight ahead.
Can’t she see and hear my car creeping along beside her?
A horn tooted and jerked my attention back to the road. The driver of an approaching truck glared at me from behind the windshield, evidently wanting his share of the road. Irritation flashed.
Doesn’t he see this girl is in a bad way?
I glanced back at the girl, ready to shake my fist at the truck driver, but she had disappeared. Instead, I saw the white mailbox.
The gas station attendant didn’t lie. It would have been impossible to miss. The mailbox, built of white-painted brick, resembled a turret on a castle. The pea gravel driveway was right next to it. It was either turn now or miss it altogether, and this road didn’t have too many places to turn around. I didn’t have time to think about where the teenage girl went so fast.
I whipped into the driveway, the tiny rocks rolling and popping under my tires. The driveway traveled at an incline, so I couldn’t see the house right away. When I got to the top of a little hill, a big, white elephant of a house unfolded in front of me. I jammed on the breaks and gaped at it.
“You have got to be kidding me,” I said to the empty car.
Four columns ran across the front, framing a second-story balcony. The monstrosity sat on a brick foundation taller than a man, topped by a porch running the entire length of the house’s front. Elaborate wrought-iron railings embraced two sets of curved steps, one on each end of the porch. The windows lining the house’s front stood at least ten feet tall and sported stained glass panes of blue and purple at their tops. One word came to mind: never-ending. Everywhere I looked there was more house.
“Holy shit.” I counted four chimneys rising from different parts of the house, each adorned with elaborate masonry designs around the top. Every piece of the house was just so. I saw not an inch of flaking paint or even one board that looked rotted.
Who has money for something like this?
A blacktopped parking lot surrounded by a wrought-iron fence sat a distance from the house. I pulled in and parked, shocked by the cars. The least expensive was a new Cadillac SUV. I fumbled another cigarette into my mouth, hoping it would cool off my perception of all this. It couldn’t be all that bad. But it sure looked like it was.
The house and grounds looked like a TV remake of
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
. These folks would take one look at me and tell me to get lost. For a moment, I forgot the receipt and the sickening mixture of humiliation and anger I felt over it. It might not be the worst my day had to offer. These folks might get security to escort me from the premises.
Where the hell is Dean in all this?
The only logical conclusion was Dean’s family worked here. He said his father got hurt clearing debris washed up by a flood. Sure enough, branches, leaves, and other nature-produced garbage littered the lush, perfectly manicured grounds. Cleaning this up would be no small chore.
I let the huge house intimidate me a moment longer before I grabbed Dean’s gift-wrapped wallet and forced myself out of my beat up old Nova. I had no idea how to approach a place like this and inquire after people I thought might work here. Was it appropriate for me to knock on the back door? Surely not in the twenty-first century. I loitered next to my car, frozen with uncertainty.
“I knowed you’d be coming.” The voice came from next to my arm, male but high and reedy. I jerked in surprise and twisted around. The man was around Dean’s age—pushing forty—and balding with wispy hair stuck to his head. I recognized the bulbous, broken-veined nose of a drinker. Patchy stubble covered his face. “You here to make things right, ain’t you?”
I recoiled from him, uncertain how to respond. Nobody expected me. And, even if they did, make what things right?
That girl on the highway.
The image of her popped into my head like a monster coming out of hiding. A chill worked its way through the thick humidity and settled over me.
Oh, hell no. Not this shit again.
The man crowded toward me, coming so close I smelled his booze sweat and something else, something animal. He leaned into my face and stared into my eyes. I tried to back away but my butt bumped my car. Trapped by this weirdo, fear zinged through my veins as the adrenaline kicked in. I swung my head side to side. I wanted to end this crazy encounter. But I saw no way out.