It was a sultry day for June, even by Tennessee standards, and my sundress stuck to my back as I bent down to place a slice of fresh strawberry on the back porch for Lucy. Satisfied, I propped open the screened door behind me and grabbed a bite for myself. “Mmm,” I murmured at the flavor of the summer fruit, perfectly ripe and juicy.
“Come on, sweetie,” I said to my pet skunk, who cowered inside my kitchen, huddled next to the island. “I’ll bet you want this yummy strawberry.”
I placed another slice of strawberry on the white-painted porch, a foot or so closer to the steps leading from my cozy antebellum home to the lush grass and the pond out back.
Fat honeybees dipped and swayed among the blue hydrangeas at the edge of the stairs, and wind chimes tinkled in the breeze.
“Fresh-cut strawberries. All yours,” I coaxed, placing the bowl on the porch swing, giving my full attention to the creature whose claws clicked hesitantly on the linoleum floor just inside. “You just gotta be brave.”
Lucy peeked out from the doorway and blinked at the bright, perfectly lovely summer day. I smiled at her, and she hesitated only a moment before pouncing on the first slice of fruit. She stuffed it in her mouth, chewing fast, and her eyes closed briefly, which was skunk for you had me at strawberry.
I clapped my hands with joy and she froze.
“Oh, I’m sorry, baby,” I said quickly. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Lucy was never this jumpy except when the ghost on our property decided to make an appearance. Frankie particularly liked the porch, but I didn’t see any sign of him right then.
My skunk rolled her back as if she could dislodge the brand-new pink and white ruffled harness I’d bought for her this afternoon. “Is that your problem?” I asked gently. “It’s darling, I promise.” It was supposed to be a special treat. The lady at the pet store assured me it would be comfortable and an easy adjustment for my skunk, although at this point I wasn’t convinced Lucy agreed.
The ruffles at her waist stuck out like a little tutu, which had to feel a little strange for anyone not used to wearing a dress.
Still, being the practical Southern girl that she was, Lucy turned in a circle, regained her composure, and toddled for the second strawberry. She just about had it when the ghost of a 1920s gangster shimmered into view behind her.
Frankie appeared in black and white, wearing the same pin-striped suit he’d died in. He stared down at the skunk as if I’d dressed her in his mother’s pearls.
Lucy scrambled past the berry and dashed straight off the porch and into the yard.
“Frankie!” He had no business sneaking up on her. “Lucy is afraid of you and you know it.”
The hardened gangster appeared flustered for the moment he took to straighten his tie, and then the moment was gone. “What? Was I supposed to knock first?” He glanced from the retreating skunk to me again. “Is that animal wearing a dancing dress?”
“Absolutely not.” Although I could see where he’d gotten the impression. “It’s the latest in ergonomic, stylish pet harnesses.” I drew up to my full height and pretended not to care when the skunk shimmied under the dirty old woodpile, wearing her new fashion statement. “I’m going to teach Lucy to walk on a leash.”
“How’s that working out?” Frankie chuckled.
“She’s not quite used to it yet,” I admitted. “We’ll add the leash later.” And I wouldn’t press if she truly ended up despising it. “I’d just like to be able to take her for walks into town. She loves to socialize.”
Lucy had a way of making people smile, and it would do her good to get some exercise as well.
“Right…” Frankie said, removing his white Panama hat and scratching his head. In doing so, he exposed the neat round bullet hole in his forehead that had killed him. He caught me staring and shoved the hat back down on his head. “If you go to town, I’m going too.”
Frankie’s spirit was trapped on my property, but a small amount of his ashes still remained in the urn I kept on my mantel. He could leave the house only if I took his urn, and those ashes, with me.
“Let me get this straight. You want me to stroll down Main Street with a skunk on a leash and an urn in my purse?” I asked.
The gangster spread his arms wide. “It’s either that or figure out how to free me.”
We’d tried. Unfortunately for both of us, nothing had worked so far. We’d tackle that another day.
I popped a strawberry into my mouth. “Would you mind disappearing for a bit so I can get Lucy out of the woodpile?”
He glanced at the bit of her poufy tail barely visible among last winter’s fire logs. “I don’t know why that animal don’t like me.”
“There’s no accounting for taste,” I mused. Although when it got right down to it, he had a point. Frankie had been nothing but kind to her.
“I got more pressing business anyhow,” the gangster said, directing his attention to my back driveway. “A special guest just rolled up.”
I followed his gaze, but saw only my 1978 Cadillac parked in its usual spot.
Frankie was the only spirit I could see on my own, since he was tied to my property. From time to time, he lent me his energy so that I could see and interact with the ghosts on the other side. But it drained him to do it, and we limited my ghost-seeing abilities to when I needed to solve a mystery around town, or occasionally when Frankie had a point to prove.
All told, I didn’t always want to know what kind of characters he invited to my ancestral home. I liked it quiet and Frankie’s flapper girlfriends and mobster buddies partied like it was 1929.
“Sticky Pete!” Frankie called. He clapped the unseen presence on the back. “Let’s head out to the shed.” He shot me a glance. “The boys from Chicago are already setting up.”
I placed my hands on my hips. This was what I got for letting a mobster live in my home. Not that I had much of a choice. I watched as Frankie strode out to the shed, talking animatedly with no one I could see.
At least he wasn’t bringing ghosts into my house.
I grabbed my bowl of strawberries and headed for the woodpile. I’d probably need every last one of them to coax Lucy out this time.
I was searching for that tuft of tail when I heard a car crunching down the side driveway.
Interesting. I wasn’t expecting anyone.
Then again, this was Sugarland, where friends and neighbors felt free to drop by anytime. It was one of the things I loved about this place.
But I didn’t recognize the gray Honda Civic that pulled up on the opposite side of the ghost car, or at least where I believed it to be. It was interesting how the living instinctively tended to avoid the dead.
An African American girl with natural hair and cat-eye glasses slid out of the car. I tried to place her and knew I recognized her from town.
She smiled at me and slammed the door, showing off thin arms and a honey badger tattoo. “Hiya!” she said by way of introduction. “I hope I’m not interrupting. I’m Bree LaMont.”
Now I remembered her. She was friends with the woman who owned the New For You resale shop downtown. I’d solved a haunting there a while back.
I lifted my bowl and then glanced at the woodpile. “I’ve got a little critter I’m trying to catch.”
Her gaze darted to the logs. “Friendly or feisty?” she asked, growing serious, careful.
“Both,” I said, smiling. “It’s my pet skunk, Lucy. We were trying out a harness for the first time and she got spooked.” I’d leave out the part about the ghost.
Bree crouched in front of the woodpile as if she’d done this before, which was…impossible. She tilted her head. “I see little Lucy,” she said, her tone warming.
Bree smacked her lips. Once. Twice. It didn’t make any sense.
I saw the flash of a tail.
“That’s it, love,” she murmured, graduating to a harsh purr that sounded like part skunk, part cat.
Lucy’s nose poked out from under a log.
Bree purred deeper, and Lucy wriggled out from under the woodpile. A grin tickled the side of Bree’s lips as my little skunk toddled straight into her arms. “That’s it,” she said, embracing her, “Good girl.”
“How did you do that?” I asked, crouching next to her to pet my skunk.
Bree stroked Lucy’s silky fur, stopping to flick out the occasional piece of tree bark. “I called her like her mamma would. It helps that Lucy’s the adventurous sort.” She stroked the soft spot behind her ear. “You’re a curious one, aren’t you?”
“And you’re the skunk whisperer,” I told her, amazed to see them both perfectly content.
Believe it or not, some folks in town had issue with Lucy being a skunk. They labeled her as a menace before they even bothered to get to know her.
“I work for the Sugarland Animal Sanctuary,” Bree said, standing, with Lucy in her arms. “But in college, I volunteered with the Smoky Mountains Wildlife Rescue Center in Gatlinburg. We saw a fair number of Lucy’s country cousins.”
“Let’s sit up on the porch,” I suggested. Lucy was going to get heavy in a second and Bree showed no sign of putting her down. “I don’t have any sweet tea brewed.” In fact, I didn’t have any tea or sugar in the house. I felt my cheeks flush with embarrassment. Southern hospitality called for me to have something to offer my guest, but the money for extras this month had gone toward securing Lucy a bit of exercise. “I can get you a big glass of iced water.”
“I’m fine, thanks,” she said, joining me on the porch. She winced a bit and seemed to hesitate for a moment. “What I really need is a favor.”
“All right,” I said, sitting on the swing with her. I’d do my best.
She drew Lucy a bit closer to her chest and the skunk snuggled in tight. “We have a dangerous situation at the animal sanctuary. A ghost. Word around town is that you handle that sort of thing.”
“I do. In fact, I just started a new ghost-hunting business,” I told her. Even before I’d gone pro, Frankie and I had done a lot of good. We’d caught more than one killer, we’d reunited a World War Two soldier with his sweetheart, and we’d even solved a decades-old mystery at a haunted mansion.
“My boss forbade me to call you,” she admitted, her fingers twining in Lucy’s fur. “We don’t have the money for this sort of thing and he doesn’t even believe in ghosts. But I saw something last night that needs fixing, no matter what he thinks.”
“You can tell me,” I assured her.
Lucy curled her soft tail around Bree’s arm and the woman stroked it. “We’ve had trouble this past week with animals getting out of their cages at night. Dogs, mostly. But sometimes cats and rabbits. We had a guinea pig go loose last night and that’s dangerous. The animals could hurt themselves or each other. My boss thinks it’s the cages or that we’re not locking them tight enough, but it’s not. Someone or something is letting the animals out.”
I believed her. Bree didn’t seem like the type to forget to lock the cages. “What did you see last night?” I pressed.
She drew tight and then blew out a breath. “I brought a sleeping bag to work last night and I stayed. I’ve done it before for sick animals or for an animal that’s having trouble adjusting.” She seemed unsure and I nodded for her to continue. “We have a separate area for the dogs. I set up in the hallway outside the dog kennels. I kept the lights on and even managed to get a few hours’ sleep. But at about three in the morning, the kennels started opening by themselves. It was as if someone was unlatching them, but I didn’t see anybody.”
“It’s okay,” I said, placing a hand over her trembling one. “I believe you.”
Her eyes had gone glassy. “You’re probably the only one who would. It was freaky. And it’s bad for our animals and I don’t know what to do.”
“I’ll help you,” I assured her.
“I know this is your business and I don’t even know what you charge—” she began, clearly overwhelmed.
“Consider it a donation.” If I could help her and those animals, I would.
She choked out a sigh of relief. “I can help you with your skunk,” she said quickly. “I’d be glad to see if she’s a candidate for leash training.” She ran a finger under the flouncy harness. “I assume that’s what you were doing.”
“She may take some convincing,” I conceded.
Bree gave a watery smile. “Skunks love to explore. If she’s up for it, it’s a great idea.”
“Then it’s a deal,” I said. “Skunk training for ghost hunting.”
From the way she beamed, I could tell I’d found a kindred soul. Now I just had to explain our deal to Frankie. The mobster tended to favor cash he could no longer spend and gold he could no longer touch.
“Can you come by tonight?” she asked. “We’re on the north side of town, on the DeWitt Ferry property just past the cemetery. Everyone is usually gone by ten, including my boss. I can keep Lucy up front and work on her leash training and you can…” she trailed off.
“Hang out in the haunted part,” I finished for her. “It’s okay. It’s what I do.”
I just wondered what I’d find tonight.