Excerpt: Dead Men Don't Dust
"Clarence!" the male voice yelled. "Come back here. We haven't wedded you yet."
I stopped trudging toward the picturesque plantation and turned, seeing an alligator wearing a tiara heading right for me. It was odd, but even stranger was the man running behind the alligator. He wore a long white dress with a lace veil trailing to his waist.
While backing away as fast as I could with my suitcases, the duo got closer. I wanted to run, but it was magnetic, watching the couple heading in my direction.
What was going on in this area of Louisiana? Was it something in the water? Or was I nuts, waiting for an alligator to eat me?
The man finally grabbed the alligator's rhinestone-studded collar and leash, stopping both of them a few feet in front of me. He looked up at my face and tipped his head—and veil—surveying me from head to toe. "Morning."
My open mouth caught insects because I'd never seen such a thing before in my life. "Good morning?"
Should I run or just laugh?
Before I could decide, the man wiped his hand on his dress, took a step closer, and stuck it out for me to shake. The alligator stood still with its giant smile and one eye facing me. "My name's Tim," the man said.
Tim pushed his hand even closer, but I wasn't sure I wanted to touch this guy. The thought turned my stomach.
"I'm your neighbor," he said. "Is ya married?"
I did a double take of the scene, dropped my suitcase handle, and clasped both hands behind me so I wouldn't have to touch him. "Why are you asking?"
He moved his outstretched hand back to his dress, smoothing out the skirt. "I want to take you out. Get ready for dinner, because we're going to a fancy place. They even have a drive-up window."
A drive-up window? Fancy?
I didn't know what to say. It must've been a southern thing, with his accent, but I was surprised.
I pointed toward his outfit. "You're going out in a wedding dress?"
He looked down and lifted some of the lace. "Oh, this? It's just to get Clarence in the mood so he'll take a fancy to some of the girls." He pointed toward my right. "That there's my place and I raise alligators for a living. Your aunt and uncle sold off some of their land, and now it's mine."
I collected myself, still staring at the veil. How did he know I was related to the owners of the huge white plantation sitting in front of me?
I had to answer him. "Well, sir, I'm dating, so I can't go out with you, even to a place with a drive-up window."
Why he'd think that was classy was still beyond me. With him as my neighbor, it was going to be an interesting summer, to say the least.
"Ditch the guy and go out with me anyway." His grin was as slimy as his alligator's fake smile.
The door to the plantation flew open and an older black woman marched out, looking like she was on a mission. Her jaw clenched and her eyes narrowed, swinging her arms as she approached us. "Tim, don't you need to be somewhere with that animal?"
"Yes, ma'am." He nodded toward her, winked at me, then turned and pulled on the leash. He and his alligator strolled across the property toward his home while I watched, still surprised at the scene.
The older woman reached out and shook my hand. "Welcome, Miss Allison." She wore a red handkerchief tied over her hair with a streaked brown and red apron covering her old blue dress. "My name's Louise. I'm the caretaker of the kitchen here at the Lunviere Plantation. Missus Charmaine said to treat you right fine and we intend to do just that. I see you've already met one of our neighbors."
"Yes, I did, I think." I looked up at the white plantation with the giant pillared porch, sitting on a few acres of manicured land. Various trees such as weeping willows covered in Spanish moss surrounded the huge place. It was a setting no one should ever miss in their lifetime. And to think, I got to play owner of this Louisiana plantation for a whole month. "I'm sure Aunt Charmaine left me with instructions?"
Louise checked her watch and turned back toward the plantation. "Yes, and I'll give you the envelope at lunchtime, in three hours." She lifted her head and gasped aloud, taking a step backward, right in my eyesight. She studied the second floor as her mouth fell open and her eyes grew in size. While crossing herself, she said something in French and then looked up to the heavens and back to the house.
"What? Is something wrong?" I followed her eyes to see a curtain on the second floor move back to its natural place. "What did you see?"
She leaned closer and whispered, pulling her rosary beads out of her apron pocket. "The evil one." She moved the beads deftly through her fingers while whispering, then kissed the string. This woman was completely terrified of something.
If I were Catholic, I'd be doing more than kissing them once, from the way she spoke. I'd be tying them around my neck with a huge hunk of garlic, because it almost sounded like she'd seen a vampire. Maybe Uncle Leonard had a psycho relative locked upstairs? It would certainly fit his side of the family. They were rather odd, trying to be something they weren't. A crazy relative wouldn't be tolerated because it would hurt his family name.
I had to know more. "Evil one? Is someone upstairs who shouldn't be there?" Like a crazy relative from Leonard's side of the family, maybe?
"It's Jean Lunviere, here to get his treasure back. Ever since that newspaper article…" She stopped talking and covered her mouth. "I've said too much." She grabbed one of my suitcases and ran inside the house.
I lifted my other two suitcases and followed her, watching as she ran faster than a woman of her years should be able to move.
She dropped my suitcase by the staircase that swept up from the center of the downstairs, and then took off toward the back of the house, where I assumed the kitchen was located.
While still holding onto my other two suitcases, I scanned the gorgeous downstairs, painted in light tones with fans swirling on each ceiling. My eyes drifted off toward the back of the house, where people spoke in French. It was a shame I'd never learned the language because it would've been nice to know if they were talking about me, or reciting voodoo chants or something. I'd been a history major in college and taught history back home in Philadelphia, but didn't know French.
Who was Jean Lunviere, anyway? That must be the nutso relative, since this was the Lunviere Plantation, passed down through the generations in Uncle Leonard's family. But Jean wanted his treasure back? What treasure?
My cell phone rang, pulling me back to reality. I dropped my suitcases and yanked it out of my pocket. "Hello?"
"Allie, it's Liz. You've got to see this to-die-for date I've got."
I rolled my eyes. Liz didn't believe it, but she was straight as an arrow. However, she thought it was cool to be gay, so she hit on every woman she could find. "Yeah?"
"Her name's—get this—Isabel! We'd be Liz and Iz. Can you dig it?"
"No, but I could bury it," I muttered. "What are you doing? I told you before that women weren't your thing. From the way you stare at hot men in the bars—"
"Get with the program," she said. "You know I'm just waiting for you to figure yourself out."
"I already have and I'm dating Byron."
She huffed into the phone. "Allie, he's so not you. You don't get it. Now where I work—"
"At the Dish and Dive, the center of cultural hangouts," I deadpanned in a monotone while rolling my eyes.
"Quit it. If I weren't your friend since we started elementary school, I'd so be beating you up right now. Anyway, Isabel's this sweet thing that happened into our bar. She's young and really naïve."
"I bet." I looked up the stairs, thinking I'd heard something. "I'm here in Louisiana, by the way. Is there something major that you called me about?"
"Good luck. Call me when she dumps you and you find a man." I ended the call and kept looking up the stairs. Nothing was there, I was sure, but it seemed odd.
"Hello," a man said from behind me, making me jump slightly. "You must be Miss Allison." I turned and saw an older black man who reminded me of a friend of my family.
"Hello." I shook the man's hand. "And what's your name?"
"I'm Missus Charmaine's butler, Henry. Leonard and I go way back. When he hit it rich on the stock market, he hired me for life and gives me whatever I need."
"Well, it's nice to meet you." My eyes kept going toward the staircase for some reason. "Is someone upstairs?"
"Only one way to find out." He grinned and took all three of my suitcases.
I tried to pry them from his hands. "I can carry them."
He stared at me with very dark eyes. "No, that's my job. You don't want to take me from my job, does ya?"
I smiled. "I like you, Henry. If there's anything I can ever do for you, let me know."
He nodded, in a courteous sort of way. He was a real gentleman. "Sure thing, Miss Allison. Sure thing."
He walked up the stairs while I followed closely behind. Even though it was early in the morning, I wasn't tired. I'd taken the redeye flight to the New Orleans airport, then a taxi north of Lake Ponchartrain to the town of Robertlee, where the plantation was located. It was warm, but with the constant flow of air from the ceiling fans, it was comfortable for the last day of June, especially when wearing a t-shirt and shorts.
"What time does the plantation open for tours?" I asked.
Henry stopped at the top of the stairs, turned, and faced me. "We stopped the tours over a month ago."
I kept ascending the staircase. "Why?"
"There were too many tourists." He spun back around, and before I could ask him why that would be a bad thing, he was out of earshot.
Something screwy was going on in this place and I couldn't blame Aunt Charmaine for leaving town for a European holiday with her husband, Leonard. They'd inherited the place from Leonard's family and seemed to be making a good living at the tourism trade, wearing authentic period clothing from the time before the civil war, and serving meals in the restaurant in the back.
Granted, the people I'd met so far were odd, including the cab driver who wouldn't get me closer than a hundred feet from the driveway. He kept mumbling something in what sounded like French and crossing himself. And then there was Tim in his wedding dress and veil, chasing that alligator wearing a tiara. Now I had to include strange facts, like stopping the tours because of too many tourists.
What was going on and what wasn't I being told?
I caught up with Henry, who'd put my things in the master bedroom.
"Annabelle will be up later to draw your bath," he said. "She's a maid for Missus Charmaine and I know she'll be very helpful."
"Uh-huh." I looked around at all the beautiful flowered wallpaper. If Liz saw this, she'd rip it off with her teeth. She hated girlie things. I thought it was nice, and wondered if Aunt Charmaine and Uncle Leonard would let my boyfriend, Byron, and me honeymoon in this place if we married. However, I doubted Byron would go south of the Mason-Dixon Line for a honeymoon. He might sweat or something.
"Good luck," Henry said, not even cracking a smile, and headed out of the room.
Before I could say a word, my cell phone rang. I pulled it out of my pocket and checked the caller id. "Byron," I said, answering it. "It's so good to hear your voice." He must've known I was thinking about him, even if it wasn't in the most pleasant light, thinking he'd be upset at sweating.
"Yes, Allison." I knew he was clenching his jaw. His mother had taught him that all upper class people clenched their jaw when they spoke. I could only imagine how I'd have to keep my children away from the evil woman until they were about thirty.
"When can you get here?" I asked.
"Well, Allison, something's come up and I can't join you. The stock market is all over the place and I can't get off the floor."
"Have someone help you up if you've fallen." I snorted my laughter but Byron wasn't amused.
"I haven't fallen. I was talking about the stock market floor in New York."
"I know. It was a pun. Get over it." He really needed help.
Byron worked at a stock market firm in New York City. We saw each other on weekends, mostly, since I taught high school in Philadelphia, where I grew up.
"Ha-ha," he finally said in a monotone. "You made a funny."
"Yes, I made a funny." I rolled my eyes. He had to lighten up. "So you're not coming to see me?"
"No. I just can't swing it."
Figured. Just like I'd predicted before I left. "Hey, are you near a computer?"
"Yes, my love, but I have a ton of things on my desk to finish and I have to schmooze a new client for lunch. I'm afraid I'm swamped."
I guessed schmoozing a client was more important than me. He had to make his money somehow, even though he never seemed to have any. "I was just going to ask if this place is haunted, because it's a little creepy. That's okay. I'm sure I'll make it through the night without being hacked to death by a poltergeist." I crossed my fingers and looked down at the floor, hoping the guilt would make him reconsider.
He covered the phone with his hand, ignoring me while he had a conversation with some woman who was giggling. It was probably his elderly secretary he'd told me about.
As I lifted my eyes, a black cat jumped up on the bed. I reached out to pet it, but it hissed, raised its back, and tried to claw me, making me pull away. "Nice kitty."
"You have a cat? I hate cats," Byron said, his attention back on the phone. "You know I'm allergic. Now you'll have to de-flea before you see me again. Ta-ta." He ended the call and I stared at the dead phone.
I looked down at the cat, which seemed to be staring right at me. "You think I should dump him, too, huh?"
As I was waiting for the cat to answer—like it would—the doorbell rang. I tore out of the room, wanting to see if someone normal lived in this town. I ran down the stairs just as a young woman opened the door. Because she was dressed in a contemporary maid's outfit, I assumed the woman was Annabelle. She was young, probably younger than my twenty-something years of age.
"I'll get it," I said. "I need to help out."
While ignoring me, she opened the door, staring at the person on the other side. "Yes?"
"Is the lady of the house home?" a man asked.
"I'm her." I always wanted to be a 'lady of the house.' It sounded better than bill payer or debt evader.
I ran in front of the door and opened the screen. A slight breeze blew the giant hanging swing as I stepped onto the huge porch. An older man stood in front of me, wearing a three-piece suit.
"What can I do for you?" I asked.
"I'd like to show you my line of vacuum cleaners. Do you have any old vacuums you'd like to trade in for a wonderful, top of the line, Sucker 2000?"
It sounded like I'd be a sucker to buy it.
"Yes, ma'am." He reached into his pocket and removed a pink feather duster, lifting it close to his left ear. "If you'll let us clean your home to show you the quality of the Sucker 2000 and you buy the product, we'll give you a hundred dollar discount."
I had to put this situation into perspective. An older balding man stood on the plantation's front porch, wearing a suit with a vest in the early morning. It was over eighty degrees with about a hundred percent humidity, and he held a pink feather duster up near his face. I stared at him, wondering about his masculinity, and considered fixing him up with Liz. It was a start.
"Well, what'll it be?" he asked, grinning.
I crossed my arms, showing him I wasn't buying his spiel. "Who would help you clean? It's a huge home."
"I have a helper."
He pointed toward his van, where a teenage boy bopped his longhaired red head in time to the rap music he was listening to. It was so loud, the sound drifted to the porch, quite a distance away.
"He's a willing volunteer," Pink Feather-Duster man said, drawing my attention back to him.
"I just bet," I said. "He's what, in his teens?"
"Well, let me tell you something. I teach kids around that age, and they just want to do their thing. Cleaning would not be that boy's thing." I pointed to the kid. "And I bet he's not the type to sit around and play with your pink feather duster." As I got closer to the man, he inched off the porch, almost falling down the stairs. "No, I don't need help. I have a maid, a butler, and a chef. Do you really think I need my house cleaned?"
"No?" The guy looked terrified. What a pansy.
I pointed toward his chest, but he backed away before I could touch him. "That's right, buddy," I said. "Where I come from, I know a scam when I see one. If I didn't know better, I'd bet you were casing this joint for some night when I'm not home. If you have any ideas, I have alarms, so stay away. Got it?"
"That's right, yes." I pointed toward the road. "Now get off my property!"
The man literally ran to his van, hopped inside, and backed away. I grinned and went back inside the house. Yep. I could take care of things for Aunt Charmaine. No problem. I loved my Philly attitude sometimes. Now to take on the looney upstairs.