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My Great-Aunt Cilla was fond of saying that there's nothing like the feel of a blooded animal between a woman's thighs. Of course with Aunt Cilla, that might apply to a Thoroughbred or a Southern gentleman with good lineage. Although most of the women in my family have been cursed with the Delaney womb, Great-Aunt Cilla was the only one of my female forbears who didn't bother to hide her affliction. She was exiled to Atlanta for her honesty.
Lying here in the porch swing with my hound at my feet and a mint julep in my hand, I can't help but think of my ancestors and the history of this land I love. I've just concluded an Old South tradition-perusing my cotton fields from the vantage point of a horse.
Tidbits of Aunt Cilla's wisdom are coming back to me. Her womb might have had a vociferous appetite, but it was nothing compared to her brain. It was she who pointed out to me the two most potent symbols of the Old South: King Cotton and blood.
On my morning rides, I see the past, present, and future of my home: the cotton, with its green leaves covered in early morning dew; the whisper of money, of times long gone and of a way of life that seems both a dream and a nightmare, depending on perspective. The wealthy settlers of the rich Delta soil in Mississippi understood the powerful combination of horse and land, the addictive pleasure of riding one's property on a healthy and responsive animal.
Aunt Cilla had her own uses for healthy, responsive animals-especially of the human species. An excellent horsewoman, she was especially fond of grooms. Horses, leather, a virile young man-Aunt Cilla's favorite aphrodisiacs.
"Sarah Booth Delaney, you are one worthless gal. Out here sittin' on the porch, fantasizin' about lettin' the hired help poke you. If you were worth a lick, you'd be wedded, bedded, and bred by some respectable gentleman."
The disapproving tone belied the soft richness of the voice. And voice was all it was. Jitty, the itinerant ghost of my great-great-grandmother's nanny, had yet to materialize.
"I would have thought you'd be glad to know I was thinking about anyone, hired help or gentleman caller, pokin' me, as you so delicately call it." I was far beyond getting ruffled at Jitty's nagging. We were on old, familiar ground. My lack of use of the legendary Delaney womb was her favorite topic of haranguing.
"If you were thinkin' of a real hired hand, like that Willie Campbell fellow, I might be interested. You let that man use your land, might as well let him plow your furrow."
I declined to dignify her bawdy remark with a comment. Willie Campbell had leased the land around Dahlia House, and he had a fine crop of cotton in the ground. Egyptian cotton and the new strain that burst into boles of fiber already tinted green and blue. Ignoring Jitty, who was wavering in and out of existence at the foot of the swing, I sipped my julep and rubbed Sweetie Pie's belly with the toe of my boot.
"You lookin' mighty self-satisfied for a woman whose inner thighs are sore from a horse. There's a better way to get that lazy look on your face." She crystallized to the left of the swing, effectively blocking my view of the driveway.
My eyebrows rose in an inquisitive arch. Only yesterday she was one hot mama in spandex and spikes. Now she looked like Sunday morning church in a black-and-white photograph. Jitty was once again hip-hopping the decades, searching for the era that best suited her current attitude.
"What gives?" I asked, indicating the shirtwaist dress and sensible flats. "Your space boots need new heels?"
"I've been giving our predicament a lot of serious thought. What we need around here is some conviction, a dream, something to work toward. I'm gonna get it for us."
On my last three cases I'd been stabbed, shot, and generally bruised on all body parts. None of that struck fear into me the way Jitty did. I sat up a little straighter in the swing, taking care not to spill my julep. It contained the last bit of scraggly mint I'd been able to grow. "What do you mean by that?"
"I'm talking about passion and a belief in something. Have you forgotten your mama, Sarah Booth? She believed in something, and she fought to have it."
I nodded. "Yeah, I remember. Folks around here refer to Mama as 'that socialist.' "
"She wasn't a socialist. She was a woman who saw inequality, and she wanted to change it. She wanted all people, no matter what color or gender, to have equal opportunity."
"And she started a commune on this land, which nearly sent the entire county into a convulsion."
"It was your daddy who started the commune. Your mama just went along with it."
"You know, Jitty, if I'd had normal parents and been raised to be a Daddy's Girl, I might have turned out more satisfactorily, from your point of view."
I was a bitter disappointment to Dahlia House's resident haint. It was an uphill climb for Jitty as she tried to force me into the role of MFF, manipulative femme fatale. She wanted me wed and bred, or at least bred, so there would be an heir to reside in Dahlia House. Delaneys had occupied this land since before the War between the States. Jitty had no desire to find a new place to hang out should I not produce the next generation.
"You don't have to be a Daddy's Girl, Sarah Booth, but it would be nice if you'd bathe and hold off on the drinkin' until after lunch." She pointed at the julep cup in my hand. It was fine pewter, engraved with my mother's initials in an intricate pattern of twining ivy. "Puttin' that devil's intoxicant in a fine cup won't change what it is."
I looked at her from under a furrowed brow. "You're not turning into a teetotaller, are you?" I'd endured a number of different attitudes from Jitty, but I wasn't about to tolerate someone who lectured me constantly on my vices-especially not when that same someone would put me in the most intimate of acts with a perfect stranger if it would produce a child.
"Nothin' wrong with a drink ever' now and again, as long as it don't rob a person of her dreams. Looks to me like you might be headed down the path to destruction, what with your heels hiked up on the swing and those skintight britches clingin' to your ass."
I studied Jitty closer. She was wearing a dress that looked like it had come out of my Aunt LouLane's closet. One thing I'd always admired about Jitty was her flair. She could carry off just about any look. She'd even straightened her hair and curled it under. All she needed was a sweater thrown over her shoulders and a Bible in her hand. She'd make a perfect minister's wife, circa 1960-something.
"What, exactly, is it you want me to do?" I asked.
"It's a toss-up between findin' you a man and findin' you some work. Either one will do at this point."
The bullet wound in my arm had healed just fine. There wasn't a reason I couldn't get out and beat the bushes for a client. The truth was, I'd given in completely to the joy of riding Reveler and feeling the rhythm of the passing summer days. There was plenty of time in the future to concentrate on what I ought to be doing.
Jitty took two steps away from the swing to face the front of the house. The shadows of the pink lemonade and coral honeysuckle vines that crept up the trellis beside the porch cast an intricate pattern of light and dark over her, and I was reminded again of a black-and-white photograph.
She took a deep breath and slowly began to hum. Deep, rich, and throbbing with emotion, the sound seemed to seep from her, as she stared down the driveway. I was transfixed. With all of her talents, Jitty had never confessed that she could sing. I was also jealous.
"Sum-mertime, and the livin' is ea-sy. Fish are jumpin', and the cotton is high."
I closed my eyes and let the words slide through me. It was a song that always touched me, and in Jitty's powerful contralto, I felt the hairs on my arms stand on end.
"Your daddy's rich, and your mama's good-lookin'." She stopped abruptly, forcing me to open my eyes and glare at her.
"Now that you've shown me you can sing, keep doing it," I commanded.
"Shush," she said, cocking her head in an age-old attitude of listening. "If you ain't got the blues now, you're gonna," she said as she vanished into thin air.
"Jitty!" I hissed. I hated it when she delivered one of those enigmatic one-liners and then disappeared. "Jitty, you're cheating. You can't just say something like that and take off." But she could. Jitty could not be summoned or dismissed. If she'd ever been servile, she'd long forgotten the basic deportment.
"Sarah Booth?" The voice that called out held some concern. "Who are you talkin' to?"
I recognized John Bell Washington's voice instantly. He was a blues guitarist I'd met on my last case, thanks to the cyber-intervention of a teenager. Nonetheless, J. B. was a nice guy who'd risked a lot to help me.
"I'm over here in the swing," I called out to him, rising to give him a hug as he came up the steps to the secluded shade of the small side porch. J. B. was every woman's dilemma-handsome and frequently unemployed. The work schedule for a blues guitarist was strictly seasonal. J. B. had another major talent as a masseur when he chose to work the day shift, which wasn't often as long as his mama supported his desire to play music.
He walked around the corner of the porch toward me, a puzzled look on his handsome face. "Who were you talkin' to?" he asked again.
"Myself, I guess." I blushed becomingly. For all that I'd disavowed the tactics of a Daddy's Girl, there were a few harmless maneuvers that I deployed when necessary.
The blush effectively derailed his curiosity. At a momentary loss, he thrust a newspaper toward me. "What do you think of this?"
Luckily, women of the Delta in the Daddy's Girl ilk aren't expected to read newspapers. In fact, being even moderately well-informed is a deadly sin and can lead to freethinking. I took the paper from his hand and read it with open curiosity. It wasn't easy to miss the article he wanted me to see. It was outlined in bold black ink.
"Blues Blizzard Scott Hampton Arrested for Brutal Murder." I scanned the story, which was a thumbnail sketch of race, music, and hot tempers that had plagued the nation since the sixties.
The dead man was one Ivory Keys, an acclaimed piano player who owned the most popular nightclub in Kudzu, a thriving, mostly black community on the west side of Sunflower County. Needless to say, Ivory was black. Scott Hampton, heir to the Michigan auto-manufacturing family, was white. Of interest was the fact that both men had served time in the Michigan State Penitentiary, their sentences overlapping slightly in the nineties.
Ivory Keys had been brutally stabbed in his own nightclub, Playin' the Bones, where Scott was the featured talent of the wildly popular club band. Keys had hired the white musician when he got out of prison after serving his time on a cocaine charge. Apparently, Keys and Hampton had had a rather unusual relationship dating back to their prison days.
The murder weapon and money, thought to have been stolen from the club, were found in Hampton's possession. He was in Sunflower County jail charged with first-degree murder.
"Do you know him?" I asked slowly.
"I knew them both. A better man than Ivory Keys never walked this earth."
J. B.'s face showed his ambivalence. "He's one of the most talented guitarists I've ever known. Maybe better than Stevie Ray Vaughan."
"What's he doing stuck in Kudzu, Mississippi, then?"
"If I had to name one reason, I'd say attitude. He's got a chip on his shoulder larger than the Rock of Gibraltar. And he's always eager for someone to try and knock it off."
"Drugs?" I asked. After all, he'd been in the Big House once for possession. Many a crime had been fueled by a snoot full of white powder.
J. B. shook his head. "I heard he was clean. That was one of Ivory's demands before he gave Scott the job. No drugs."
"And Scott lived up to his promise, until he plunged a knife into Ivory's back." I sounded skeptical because I was. The picture of Scott Hampton in the newspaper showed an arrogant, angry man, with light eyes and pale hair expertly cut to look oh-so-disheveled. I could easily read the "spoiled rich kid" smirk. I was familiar enough with it on the faces of the young men my age from the Delta: the sons of Buddy Clubbers, who'd grown up to believe the entire world was their oyster. These were the men who were paving the rich Delta soil to create strip malls and other eyesores called progress.
"It may not be that simple," J. B. said.
The hint of doubt in his voice hooked me. "So you believe he's innocent?" I asked.
"What I believe isn't important. What Mrs. Keys believes is. And she believes Scott is innocent. She wants to hire you to find the real killer."
I motioned J. B. into the house. I'd already suffered a lapse as a hostess by not offering a cool libation. I was about to remedy that, as well as replenish my own drink.
When we were in the dim interior of Dahlia House's parlor, I poured the bourbon over ice and handed him his glass.
"To music," he said, and we both drank.
"Now let me get this straight. The widow of Ivory Keys wants to hire me to prove Scott Hampton, the man who was found with the murder weapon in his possession, not to mention some three thousand dollars in possibly stolen money, is innocent."
J. B. reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. He unfolded it and handed it to me. It was a check for five thousand dollars signed by Ida Mae Keys.
"I told her your fee was ten thousand, and she said she'd pay the rest when you got Scott out of jail."
From the Hardcover edition.