Authors: T'Gracie Reese,Joe Reese
(A Nina Bannister Mystery)
T’ Gracie and Joe Reese
To the cozy mystery writers of the world:
May they and their cats forever prosper!
CAST OF CHARACTERS
(listed in alphabetical order)
one of America’s most prolific young writers, but not the easiest man on earth to deal with.
a would-be cozy writer haunted by a dark secret.
heroine of the Nina Bannister mystery series. Heads to The Candles in search of a few days’ peace and quiet, and soon finds herself sent into Abbeyport on an errand of vital importance.
The Cozy Pussy-Cats:
they arrive thirty-strong in elegant, hand-designed cat carriers—and the fur begins to fly!
executive director of the AGCW (American Guild of Cozy Writers), she is charged with maintaining structure and order amid a flood of threats to her beloved literary genre.
Professor Brighton Dunbury:
author of the Drusilla of Sestos cozy series; the professor re-kindles an old romance and hands Nina a vital clue.
high-ranking executive at HBO; she is charged with making a life-changing—and dangerous—decision.
proprietor of The Candles Bed and Breakfast.
Allergic to cats.
Maybelle, Annabelle, Mildred, and Ben:
Don’t worry about them.
Jim and Pat Hershey:
the country’s most beloved husband and wife cozy-writing team. (They look SO CUTE together!)
beauty contest queen. Her exotic Siamese cat, Miss Whiskers, has an unfortunate liaison with the plantation house cat, Sluggo.
Does not exist.
C. R. Roberts:
woman body-builder-writer. Her cozy heroine, Patty Parity, is a fierce advocate for women’s rights.
The Smathers Sisters:
writers of paranormal romances (as well as cozies); they are the first American writers to introduce inter-creature sexual intercourse.
Abbeyport Police Chief James Thompson:
almost driven to a mental breakdown by the last Writers’ Convention at The Candles, he has vowed never to deal with the profession again. Events, however, dictate otherwise.
she and her heroine are both in their early nineties. She is almost thrown out of the AGCW for writing works with too explicit erotic content.
Nina Bannister, occupant of a haunted room, awoke at six o’clock in the morning, the canopy of a huge four-poster bed stretching above her, mythological figures staring menacingly either at each other or at her––it being far too early to decide exactly which.
She missed her cat Furl.
She missed having to kick his little yellow and white body off the northeast corner of her bed back in Bay St. Lucy. She missed snarling something bad at him as he plopped to the floor and rrraaawwd back at her, his words meaning, in cat, “All right, all right, so where’s breakfast?”
She missed her morning’s walk along the beach.
What could one walk along if one lived in a plantation house such as this one, tucked away in the middle of Mississippi?
But it was two miles away and separated from her by dense pine forest and prehistoric undergrowth.
So there was nothing to do but slip out of the bed—parachute out, really, because the hardwood floor of the room had been built at least a foot too low from the surface of the mattress itself—and, having hopefully neither sprained an ankle or shattered a foot, totter over to the huge thing on the far wall that was either a burnished mahogany vanity or a court house.
She looked at herself, saw nothing particularly new nor frightening—though it must be said, nor particularly encouraging either—then padded back across the room to the stately chair on which she had piled both her jeans and the gray, black, and tan sweatshirt with the snarling Mississippi State bulldog on it—and, as it were, dressed.
The sweatshirt seemed to engulf her.
It was as though she had been eaten by the bulldog, and was now inside it.
Yesterday she had bought the thing, during the first small shopping spree ventured upon by her and Margot as they entered the town of Abbeyport.
Yesterday, is that all it was?
And where exactly had it begun, this strange venture that was supposed to be a pure vacation but that now promised to be—what?
No way to know, no way to predict, not just this morning anyway.
But as for where it had begun, why, that was easy when one thought about it.
It had begun under the blackest of all skies, with crabs sizzling in the equally black pot, and she herself talking of hurricanes (the real ones, not the ones from Pat O’Brien’s in New Orleans) and of Sarah Morgan, flaming red-haired Sarah, who, Nina knew, would have been one of her best-ever friends––
––had Sarah Morgan not been dead.
Such a pity.
HOW TRIPS ARE PLANNED
The whole thing had started on a Friday evening in late August.
What a terrible time of year.
The tourists were leaving the town, which meant death for the merchants, and school was starting, which meant death for the children.
Those of them unfortunate enough to have birthdays in the last week of the month received not toy planes and guns and animals and dolls and video games, but bottles of paste and packages of number two lead pencils.
One might as well not have been born at all.
This particular night though, given all the circumstances which seemed stacked against it, was going surprisingly well.
Margot Gavin had arrived that morning on her monthly visit to town and had spent the morning gabbing with Nina and fussing about her shop Elementals, moving a vase from here to there and being doubly certain that none of Nina’s lighthouse paintings had found their way onto the walls.
Then the two had split up. Margot had stayed in the office to catch up on paperwork, and Nina had betaken herself, garbed in rags and flip flops, down to the stone jetty, where she’d spent two hours crabbing.
She had then made the rounds to the various liquor stores, laying in gin for Margot and a bit of white wine for herself.
Some piling up of driftwood then, a nap, her ritual watching of the sunset and appearance of the first stars—for tonight was no moon—and, a bit later on, the starting of the fire.
She had constructed—or rather Tom Broussard had constructed for her—a ramshackle metal framework from which the big black kettle could be hung, and beneath which driftwood dried by the July and August suns could be kindled.
So that, by the time the sky had become as black as the kettle and the waves had begun their nightly moaning cadence, she could dump her sack of crabs into the bubbling water and watch their color change to fierce red and hear Margot say:
“Those crabs are so red. They remind me of Sarah Morgan’s hair.”
There was very little leeway in casting about for a reply to this, since only one response was possible. That being of course:
“Who is Sarah Morgan?”
“Who was Sarah Morgan?”
“Our ghost. The ghost who haunts The Candles Plantation. Far and away, the best bed and breakfast ghost in Mississippi.”
A shake of Margot’s head:
“Of course ‘really.’ A ‘false’ ghost story would have no point. No one would listen to it.”
“Well, I’m ready to listen then. Tell me about Sarah Morgan. Here, let’s get some of these crabs on your plate. You just have to tear them apart you know.”
“I know. You promise me that they don’t feel pain when you boil them like you just did.”
“I’m told it’s a soothing experience for them.”
“All right. Then I shall devour my share. First though, I want to read you something.”
She reached into the huge purse of dull gray and cracked leather which lay beside her like a dead manatee.
“What have you got there?”
“My God, I’d almost forgotten that such things existed.”
“They don’t any more, but they apparently did in 1864 when Sarah wrote this one.”
“She couldn’t just text?”
“The Union troops controlled the Internet. According to historians, they perpetrated a great deal of identity theft.”
“Yes. Of course, the Confederate States of America had done some of that too, for centuries, in order to get their cotton picked.”
“Let’s not quibble. Ooh, these little morsels are good!”
“I catch only the finest specimens. So go ahead, read. Is there enough light by the fire?”
“I think so. I feel Sarah’s spirit is here with us, and she’ll brighten up the fire if need be.”
“Would Sarah’s spirit like a crab?”
“If it does, I’m sure it will just help itself. Here, though. Let me unfold this. Aha. Now, listen:”
“Oh, they are coming! God grant us the victory! They are now within four miles of us, on the big road to Bayou Sara. On the road from town to Clinton, we have been fighting since daylight at Redbridge, and have been repulsed.”
The wind, Nina noticed, was coming stronger off the ocean, but it was still not strong enough to move a ludicrous number of stars that had spilled out across the sky.
Margot squinted through her glasses and continued to read:
“Fifteen gunboats have passed Vicksburg, they say. It will be an awful fight. Colonel Grant badly beaten at Redbridge. No matter. With God’s help we’ll conquer yet! Again! The report comes nearer. Oh they
coming! Coming to defeat, I pray God. Only we seven women remain in the house. The General left this morning, to our unspeakable relief. They would hang him, we fear, if they should find him here. ‘Mass’ Gene has gone to his company. We are left alone here to meet them.”
A momentary pause to let this sink in, so that Nina might take a moment to evaluate the prospects of seven women against a major portion of the Army of the North. Then the reading went on, as, of course, the Civil War went on, as it has always done in the state of Mississippi, and it will always continue to do––Appomattox be damned––until the end of time.
burn the house, they will have to burn me in it. For I cannot walk, and I know they shall not carry me. I’m resigned. If I
burn, I have friends and brothers enough to avenge me. Create
a sensation! Better than being thrown from a buggy. Only I’d not survive to hear of it!”
Silence save for the wind, the waves, and the breaking up of the crabs, which the two women were violently devouring.
“What happened?” Nina could not help asking.
Margot shook her head:
“What happened was exactly what Sarah Morgan had predicted. A mortar shell—it must have been only a few hours after the passage was written—hit the East wing of the plantation and set it on fire. The blaze was put out before it could consume the rest of the building. But they were not able to get Sarah out. She perished in the fire.”
“She must,” asked Nina, “have been very old at the time, and unable to walk down the stairs?”
“No. She was a young woman. But she’d been thrown from a horse the week before—I’m told she was an ardent horsewoman—and had sustained a broken leg. The men had carried her upstairs, the soldiers protecting the house. But those soldiers were gone now.”
“Why didn’t the women leave too?”
“That simply wasn’t done. There would have been no place safer, not for a woman with a broken leg.”
“Why couldn’t she go to the town nearby? What is it called? Abbeyport?”
“It was hardly a place in the road at that time. No, the Southern ladies simply had to depend on the gallantry of those troops that might be invading. Sarah was in a bad position. She probably would have been spared ill treatment—I’m told the rest of the ladies were—but there was that chance mortar round. Yankee soldiers arrived soon after and put out the fire. They wanted the place as a headquarters, of course. But––well, that’s the story. Or at least part of it.”
“And so Sarah is now––”
“Yes, Sarah is a ghost. She has always refused to leave her house. She is said to appear from time to time on the front balcony, her hair blazing in red flames. She appears infrequently, and to any new owner of The Candles, some few weeks after the plantation has changed hands. And always in the same room, that room being in the center of the house, directly over the main entrance. Your room, actually.”
It took a bit of time and crab to let this last phrase soak in.
“Your room, Nina. The room where you’ll be staying. Tomorrow night, actually.”
“I thought I’d be staying in my room tomorrow night.”
“Why would you want to do that?”
“I don’t know; maybe because I live there?”
“What a lame reason!”
“All right; so what are the reasons for my sharing a room at The Candles with fire-headed Sarah?”
“Why, because I’m inviting you, of course! Nina, you were at the plantation on the day of our wedding.”
“And a beautiful wedding it was, too. No ghost as I remember.”
“No, Sarah apparently always allows for a bit of ‘living in’ before she makes her appearance. But, at any rate, you keep saying you’re going to visit us.”
“I know, Margot. But I was a little busy in Washington. And then before that I had to go to Austria to break up an international art smuggling ring. And there was the horrid mess with the deep water drilling rig Aquatica––”
“Pick pick pick the little everyday details of life. Errands here, murders there––”
“And you never seem to get time to do what
really want to do. Well, this time things will be different. Goldmann is in New York on business, and we have no guests booked into the place all next week. We would have it to ourselves. We would do nothing but take it easy. Stay in bed until ten, make ourselves a little coffee, enjoy the absolute perfect stillness of the woods around the place. Come on, say you’ll come.”
Nina thought about it.
She was still tired from her month in Washington, and even several weeks at home had been insufficient to get her old energy back.
Maybe this was what she needed.
Jackson Bennett’s daughters could come and feed Furl.
They could simply close Elementals for a few days.
“And,” she said, thinking aloud now, “there’s the hurricane.”
Margot leaned forward:
“Hurricane who?” asked Margot.
“That’s the dumbest hurricane name I ever heard.”
“I know,” said Nina.
“I think they should go back to naming hurricanes after women.”
“I know, but it doesn’t matter. I’ll give them my name, sexist or not. Better Hurricane Margot than Hurricane Clarence. At any rate though, what’s the story with this storm, other than the fact that it sounds like a bookkeeper?”
“I heard about it today on the weather. It’s apparently just now forming out in the Gulf. It’s started to move, though, and they expect it to head toward Texas.”
“How does that affect you here in Bay St. Lucy?”
Nina shook her head:
“It means rain, heavy rain. Again! This is like the fourth hurricane we’ve had to deal with this season. More than ever before. Some say it’s due to climate change or global warming or whatever. And I always find that depressing, just sitting in the shack, not being able to Vespa around town or walk on the beach.”