“I can’t believe you lost the body.”
“Keep your voice down,” I said. “First of all, it’s not a body. It’s cremains. And for your information, I didn’t lose them. They were stolen.”
“Lost. Stolen. Tomato. Tomahto. It doesn’t matter, Phee,” Juliet said. “Nellie asked us for one favor, help her spread Mike’s ashes in the bayou, and we messed it up. We have to get those ashes back before she finds out.”
I poked at the limp green leaves on my plate. The grease-splattered menu had touted it as a Gator Caesar Salad. It may have been alligator, or it may have been chicken, but it was making my stomach roll from the oil sliding off the deep-fried chunks of meat and pooling on the brown-tinged lettuce leaves.
“The last thing I remember was sitting down at the wake next to Tucker and his wife, Carla Ann. She was telling me some story about how Mike was related to some famous Louisiana politician through his grandmother’s cousin’s mother. I must have dozed off. When I woke up, the urn was gone, and everyone had already left to go to the Shakin’ Bacon.”
“I think you were drugged.”
I rolled my eyes. Juliet and her farfetched scenarios. “Doubtful. I was exhausted from the drive. Carla Ann droned on and on about who was related to this second cousin or that uncle, and I fell asleep. Now we need to track down who snatched the urn. Maybe they simply moved it to a safe place.”
“We need to return to the scene of the crime,” Juliet said. She bit into her hamburger then licked a smear of ketchup from the corner of her lip.
I eyed her lunch. It sure did look a heck of a lot tastier than mine. I snatched a french fry from her plate. Pointing it at her, I said, “Fine, but you can distract Tucker while I chit chat with Carla Ann and look around the house. He seemed particularly fascinated with your derriere when you bent over to pick up your keys.”
“It is one of my finer assets.”
I tossed the fry down and ate my salad. Unfortunately, my rear wasn’t my best feature. I inherited the brains, and Juliet received the beauty. Not that I was a beast, but my love of dark chocolate and good wine had made me suck in my belly this morning to button my pants.
After I called it quits on my salad, I called Nellie’s phone. It went straight to voicemail. Cell service was spotty in the bayou. She was probably swapping Mike stories down at the Shakin’ Bacon and would meet us back at the motel later.
Juliet and I drove the fifteen miles back to Mike’s hometown. It wasn’t so much a town as an old gas station housed in a dilapidated shotgun shack with white paint that was now a distant memory. A couple of trailers perched on their cinderblock foundations nearby. One of them listed dangerously to the left. Vines and moss replaced the paint on their metal sides, rusty streaks leaked down between the growth. Two miles later, cracked asphalt gave way to gravel. I turned down a weed-choked dirt road that led to Tucker and Carla Ann’s double wide. I remarked how Mike, from these humble backwoods, had reinvented himself as the pickle king.
“Mike’s deal with the Cajun mafia must have given him his start in pickles,” Juliet said. “Otherwise, he and Nellie Jo would probably still be living here with a passel of children and nothing to show for it. I’m surprised she even wanted to bring his ashes back to Louisiana. If my own family had bumped me off, I would want my cremains spread on the other side of the country.”
“Oh, don’t worry. I keep you alive for your scintillating insights into human nature and bad seventies cop lingo, little sister. Anyway, that was Mike’s daddy’s family. This is the Hebert side, his mama’s family. From what Nellie said, they are all God-fearing folks that don’t dabble in crime. I’m sure someone simply put the ashes somewhere in the house thinking they would get knocked over at the wake.”
I parked the car under a cypress. Tucker’s red Chevy pickup was under the carport. I knocked lightly on the front door. A moment later, I knocked harder. “I don’t think anyone’s home. We’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
Juliet nudged me out of the way. She pulled a credit card out of her wallet and slipped it between the metal door and its frame. She jiggled the handle, and it popped open. “Told you watching cop shows would pay off. As much as I enjoy male appreciation of my many charms, I prefer not to come back here. I want to scatter Mike’s ashes and head back to Miller’s Cove. The humidity is murder on my hair.”
She slipped into the dark trailer. I hesitated, but the mosquito that buzzed near my nose finished my internal dilemma for me. I followed her inside.
The casseroles and cakes from earlier had been cleared from the counters. I checked in the cupboards and even peeked into the fridge. No urn. I was about to follow Juliet down the hallway to scour the bedrooms when I heard a muffled thump.
“What the–” Juliet grabbed my arm. “It’s a gator coming to eat us. Phee, I’m too young to die by reptile.”
The thump sounded again followed by a faint cry. I hesitated, listened again, and when a third thump sounded, I walked over to the coat closet and yanked it open. Nellie sat trussed up like a Sunday chicken, a red bandanna stuffed in her mouth.
“Nellie!” I pulled the rag from her mouth and dropped down to untie her. “What in the world is going on?”
“They’re crazy, Phee! Plum crazy. Untie me. I gotta go get Mike and get the hell out of this swamp.” Nellie stood up and cocked her head left to right to work out the kinks from being stuffed into the small closet.
“Mike’s dead,” Juliet said, taking a tentative step towards her, hand outstretched.
“Hell’s bells, Jul, I know that. I ain’t got time to waste. Follow me.” Nellie yanked open the door and bounded down the metal front steps. Baffled, Juliet and I trotted behind her. “Pop the trunk.”
I pushed the button on the car remote. Nellie rummaged around in her suitcase. A moment later, she reappeared, a gun in her hand.
“Whoa! What in Sam Hill are you doing with a gun in the car?” I backed away from her and edged a little closer to Juliet. Maybe Mike’s death had finally unhinged Nellie. Grief does strange things to people.
“Protection. If I learned one thing from Mike’s murder, it’s that a gal can never be too careful. You two stay behind me. I’m going to get Mike’s ashes back.”
Nellie charged towards the back of the trailer, a dangerous smile on her face. I wanted to call the police, but when I pulled my cell phone from my back pocket, it showed no service. Dang it. I jogged to catch up, Juliet on my heels.
I caught a flash of Nellie’s blue shirt as she slipped through the kudzu. It was getting dark, and I wanted to stop her and get back to town before nightfall. Whatever feud she had with Mike’s family could wait until morning. “Nellie, wait up!”
I fought my way through the thicket of brambles and branches. I tripped over a vine that I swear moved on its own. I held my cell phone up as a flashlight and stumbled after Nellie.
“Shush,” Nellie hissed. She had stopped on the edge of a clearing. I crept up beside her.
Juliet clutched my hand. “Phee, what’s going on?”
In the clearing, a fire burned in a metal barrel. A cast iron pan rested on a makeshift grate and overturned plastic crates served as chairs. I squinted through the smoke and spotted a couple of people, I’d met earlier at the wake. Off to the left of the burn barrel, Carla Ann sat with a silver urn clutched to her chest.
“My sister-in-law has got a screw loose in her tiny pin head is what’s going on,” Nellie whispered. “She started rambling about summoning something to seek revenge against the other side of the family. It all got a little hazy after I drank a sip of her punch.”
“Told you it was drugged.” Juliet gave me a smug smile. “It’s a good thing I had to take Rosie for a walk and get her kibble, otherwise, we would have all been up the bayou without a pole. Saved by a seven-pound chihuahua with a weak bladder.”
“Now’s not the time, Juliet,” I said. “Why did they steal Mike’s ashes?”
“Near as I can tell, Carla Ann joined some new religion. If you ask me, it sounds like she’s mixing her hoodoo with her holy gospel. Like I said, she’s crazy. I came to in the closet and overheard her telling Tucker that she’s going to bind Mike’s ashes into some charm that will cause whoever wears it to have horrible luck.”
“Like a reverse rabbit’s foot?” Juliet asked.
“Kind of. It’s all a bunch of hogwash, but you can’t tell Carla Ann that. She was as close to Mike as a tick on a coon hound’s ear. She blames her daddy’s side for the bad blood, and she aims to get vengeance. She’s going to give the charm to Eddie Johnson’s mama, Connie. She’s like the mafia godmother now that everyone else is in jail.”
“Couldn’t we just leave the ashes here? I mean, it’s not like they’re actually Mike anymore,” Juliet said.
“I am not leaving my man in that cuckoo woman’s clutches,” Nellie said, her jaw tightening. “You’re either with me, or you can head on back to the car and wait. Anything happens, Phee, I want you to take Rosie. I know you’ll give her a good home.”
I closed my eyes. I should have listened to Clint when he said it was a bad idea to head to the swamps of Louisiana. Nellie was my friend though, and she needed me. I squelched down my nerves and gave her a nod. “I’m in. What do you need?”
“Crap. I’m in, too.” Juliet grimaced at me.
“I need a distraction. I need to keep her from dumping Mike into that pan. Once she’s dumped him, he’ll be like dust in the wind. I aim to spread his ashes in the swamp by our first trailer like he would have wanted even if it kills me.”
I spotted a shotgun leaning against one of the milkcrates. If this went south, we could all end up dead in the swamp. Before I could express my concerns, Juliet sauntered out from our hiding place and towards the burn barrel and Carla Ann.
“Yoohoo.” Juliet waggled her fingers at one of the men sitting on a crate, a six-pack of beer tucked between his feet.
He pushed back his baseball cap and spat on the ground next to him. “Who are you?”
“I’m Nellie’s friend. I came to pick her up and got a little lost. Do you know where she is?” Juliet dropped her purse. Its contents spilled across the ground. “Oh! I’m just the clumsiest thing.”
I cringed as my sister giggled like a school girl. She turned her back to the man and bent over to retrieve her belongings. The man’s grizzled eyebrows shot up to his hairline. He jumped up to help her.
Nellie tugged at my shirt. “Come on.” She slipped out of the cover of the woods and skirted around the edge, keeping to the shadows. I tiptoed after her.
“Stop,” Carla Ann said.
I froze in mid-step. Carla Ann walked over to Juliet and the man. She wasn’t holding the urn.
“Claude, roll your tongue back into your mouth and sit down.” She turned to Juliet. “Juliet, isn’t it? Nellie ain’t here, and this is a family only meeting. Head on back to town and when I see her, I’ll let her know you was looking for her.”
I eased my way towards Nellie. She was within a few feet of where Mike’s ashes rested. She reached out. A loud crack shot through the dark. For a moment, I thought I was shot, but I realized I had stepped on a large twig and snapped it in two. I felt everyone’s eyes turn towards me.
“Grab her!” Carla Ann ran towards the urn. Nellie leapt forward and tackled her before she could reach it. Carla Ann’s chin smacked the dirt as Nellie hurled her to the ground, her gun flying across ground.
I looked around for a moment before realizing all the men were transfixed by two women wrestling in the dirt. I ran and snatched up Mike and the gun. I held the gun up in the air and fired.
Everything stopped. Even the bugs stopped buzzing. A moment later, chaos began. Nellie jumped up and ran towards me. Juliet grabbed her purse and whacked the ballcapped man in the head. I leapt over the crate and crashed through the woods, Carla Ann screeching after me.
I ran as fast as my short legs could carry me through the brambles and vines that reached out and snared my clothes and hair. I had no clue where I was running. I offered up a silent prayer to Juliet’s many spirit guides to point me in the direction of the rental car.
I broke through a particularly sharp and painful batch of saw grass and felt my foot sink and slide in the marsh. The gun slipped out of my hand and into the dark water. I stopped and glanced around for someplace to hide until Carla Ann gave up and went back to her swamp crew. The moon was peeping through the trees, and I saw what I hoped was a log moving through the swamp water towards me.
“Give me back my brother!” Carla Ann yelled. She charged towards me, Juliet and Nellie close behind her.
I had nowhere to go. The saw grass would cut through my thin shirt and leave me marked for life. The water was full of critters that I had no desire to befriend. I grabbed the lid of the urn.
“You come one step closer and I will dump Mike into the bayou!”
“Listen, you frizzy-headed harlot, you give me those ashes.” Carla Ann slowed her large frame to a walk. Her face was an unhealthy shade of violet and her gray hair had escaped its tight bun.
“Ta ta ta,” I said and wagged my finger at her. “Name calling will not help your cause, lady. Neither will the fact that you drugged me. These ashes belong to Nellie. She was his wife.”
“She ain’t got Hebert blood. I promised Mama when she died that I would take care of my baby brother. I can’t do nothing about the Johnson blood that runs through my veins, but I can darn sure make sure that the rest of those crooks pay for what they did to my Mikey. Now, I’m done playing. Give me that damn urn!”
Carla Ann may have slowed, but she wasn’t stopping. A few more feet, and she would be close enough to grab the urn. I unscrewed the top. I held the urn over the swamp.
“Do it, Phee,” Nellie said. “Juliet was right. Mike’s gone. Fighting with family and seeking revenge might be the Hebert way, but it isn’t the Nellie Jo Johnson way. Dump him. He’ll understand.”
“Shut your mouth, Nellie. The biggest mistake Mike ever made was marrying you and moving away to Virginia. He should have married Shirley and stayed here.” Carla Ann took another step towards me. “I’m done playing. Give me those ashes.”
I took a second to consider my options. Nellie gave me a teary-eyed nod. I threw the urn as hard as I could into the swamp. Carla Ann screamed and ran towards me. I jumped out of her way and landed face down in a muddy patch of weeds, a blade of saw grass scratching the tip of my nose. My wrist bone crunched painfully beneath me.
Nellie yanked Carla Ann by the arm. “You are crazier than a rabid muskrat. You need to get your butt back into the church pew and get yourself straight. Messin’ with that mumbo jumbo hoodoo. You’re lucky nobody got hurt. You ruined a perfectly good wake and messed up my ash scattering.”
“You’re nothing but a no good Jezebel–”
Nellie pushed her into the swamp. A loud splash muffled the rest of her swearing. “Bye, Carla Ann. Feel free to cross me off the Christmas card list.”
Juliet reached down and gently helped me up. My wrist throbbed. “I think now would be a good time to head back to the car.”
“I have no clue which way it is.” I looked down at my mud-covered shirt. “I don’t think this qualifies as a mud bath treatment.”
“I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to get the heck out of here. I grew up in these swamps, so I can get us back to the car,” Nellie said.
“I’m sorry about Mike’s ashes, Nellie.” I limped over to her and gave her a muddy hug with my good arm.
She patted me on my shoulder. “It’s okay. I think he would have liked having all these women fight over him.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I would rather solve a murder than ever deal with your in-laws again.”