Having grown up only a few miles from Caddo Lake, the largest natural lake in Texas, I remember its mystery, beauty, and danger. My grandmother lived on a farm at the very end of a long dirt road, not far from the lake, in east Texas. When I was young, Grandma's house had no electricity. Whenever my brother Jack and I visited her, we watched as she churned butter, drank well water, and burned coal oil in sooty lamps. At night we listened to panthers and wolves howling outside in the woods. Emma Fitzgerald is the first character to appear in my book Ghost of a Chance and she reminds me a lot of my east Texas grandmother.
Texas is a big state and east Texas reminds you more of the old south than the wild west. The town of Jefferson was once the largest seaport in the state and as many as twenty-five steamships visited the boom town daily to load up cotton to take down the river to New Orleans. Unlike the wild west, east Texas is hilly with pine forests so thick the area has been called the "pine curtain."
Ghost of a Chance is my first published book and remains as one of my favorites. It features my Oklahoma private investigator Buck McDivit. Buck is visiting east Texas for the first time and quickly becomes a victim of culture shock. I hope you wind up loving both east Texas and Ghost of a Chance. If so, you might like the other two books in the Paranormal Cowboy Series. Thanks for giving the first three chapters a read.
Emma Fitzgerald’s rocking chair creaked as she listened to a chorus of frogs down by the lake. Silent lightning snaked across the sky, and angry clouds rolled toward the island. The approaching storm heightened the old woman's senses and sent a chill down her spine.
The storm arrived with lazy raindrops dampening the path to the lake. Emma didn’t notice, her gaze locked on the point of light far across the dark water. Words from behind released her from the spell.
“Miss Emma, you’ll catch your death if you don’t get in this house. You know it’s way past your bedtime.”
“It’s dry beneath the overhang, and I’m not the least bit sleepy. The storm’s blowing in and I’m watching that strange light out there.”
Pearl Johnson opened the screen door and joined Emma Fitzgerald on the porch, shivering when thunder rumbled the rafters. She shielded her eyes from some imagined glare and stared in the direction Emma had pointed.
“I don’t see nothing, Miss Emma.”
“Then I guess you scared it away.”
Pearl frowned and shook her big head. “Come on inside. You been brooding out here since dinner and it’s getting late.”
Emma glanced at her watch’s luminous dial. “Then why are you still here?”
“Cause you’re distressing me the way you’re acting.”
Worry lines on Emma’s face softened into a smile. She stood up from the rocking chair and wrapped her rangy arms around the big woman.
“Don’t fret over me. I’m too old and ornery to let anything get me down very long; least of all a man. Now you run on home to Raymond before the bottom drops out and drenches that pretty yellow dress of yours.”
Emma pushed Pearl toward the door, waiting until she’d opened the screen and stepped outside.
“Sure as this old lake’s got twelve-foot alligators. Now get on home with you.”
Pearl started to say something. Shaking her head instead, she hurried down the stairs. More thunder shook the rafters as she lumbered toward her own house on the far side of the clearing. Emma settled back into the rocking chair and draped a frayed orange Afghan over her knees. This time the meow of a striped kitten broke her trance.
“Tiger, you little rascal, don’t you know cats hate rain and thunder?”
Tiger didn’t seem to mind the rain, curling up in Emma’s lap and closing his eyes. Pearl had gone in time as falling water swelled into a deafening deluge. The pouring rain pooled up on the roof, finally causing a waterfall to stream from the porch overhang. Emma watched the storm as Tiger ignored it with a contented purr. Neither moved until the tempest had passed, leaving behind hazy moonlight. Grabbing Tiger by the scruff, she carried him inside and deposited him on his kitty bed beside the stove.
“Enough attention for one day, you little rascal,” she said.
Tiger nudged his toy mouse and then returned to contented sleep.
Emma started for the stairs but stopped at the window, staring at the lake. Again, she saw it. The ephemeral glow of circular light had returned, hanging over the dark water. Wrapping the Afghan around her shoulders, she headed for the door.
The hoot of an owl sounded from the distance as Emma followed the mushy path past the boat dock to the water’s edge. Vapor rose off the lake’s surface as she stopped beside a pile of brush and stared across the water.
The rain had moved north, leaving only dancing shadows to frolic over the lake. When an alligator’s knotty head appeared ten feet from Emma’s muddy slippers, she ignored it. The floating light locked her gaze, growing brighter as it approached the bank. As it did, the surrounding mist chilled the muggy air around her.
Emma’s dilated eyes soon made out the vague outline of a girl’s slender body. An apparition surrounded by veils of phosphorescence floating through the fog. Mesmerized, her sense of reality dimmed as the spirit girl approached. The apparition drew ever nearer, her translucent skin glowing. Even her eyes were colorless. Emma focused on something clutched in the spirit girl’s hand.
“Please help me,” the spirit girl whispered.
Emma reached for her hand. She succeeded only in passing her fingers through the damp mist as the spirit’s image began to wane. She blinked, and when she opened her eyes, the girl had vanished. Her hand was damp and cold but no longer empty. The object in her hand emitted an eerie pink glow when she opened her palm.
Sounds of someone shoveling damp earth grabbed her attention. The beam of a powerful flashlight overpowered its misty incandescence. Squeezing the object in her hand, she decided to investigate.
Murky shadows replaced moonlight as she followed a path through a maze of creepers and vines. She discovered the origin of the light in a small clearing. Leaning against a cypress trunk, she brushed gray hair from her eyes, gazing at a large hole in the ground. When a hand touched her shoulder, she wheeled around, realizing who was with her in the clearing.
“You scared me half to death. I told you to get the hell off my island and never come back.”
Instead of an answer, she caught the brunt of a shovel across the back of her head. A chorus of bullfrogs began to sing as she toppled into the mire. Miss Emma Fitzgerald never heard them.
Sheriff Taylor Wright stood knee-deep in shallow water, mopping his forehead with a red bandanna. Remnant humidity from last night’s rain sent rivulets of sweat down his neck, providing dive-bombing mosquitoes a tempting target. Something other than mosquitoes occupied his attention as he brushed the swarming creatures away with a subconscious swat. It was a body, already stiff with rigor.
He waited as Dave Roberts, the assistant medical examiner, and Deputy Sam Goodlake pulled the corpse toward shore. Raymond Johnson and his son Ray watched from the bank. When Roberts and Goodlake reached the shore with the body, Raymond Johnson fell to his knees and began to sob.
“It’s Emma all right,” Dave Roberts said. “Been dead a good ten hours, I’d say.”
Sheriff Wright pushed Raymond away from the body, turning him toward the lodge. “Ray, take your daddy back to the house. Nothing either of you can do here now. I’ll be along directly to ask a few questions.”
When Raymond resisted the sheriff’s advice, Ray took his father’s elbow, gently directing him away from the lifeless body of Emma Fitzgerald. Dr. Tom Proctor, the coroner, and chief medical examiner nudged the corpse with the toe of his boot.
“Looks like Emma got herself tangled in a trotline. Maybe drowned. Her nigrahs seem mighty distraught.”
“What was she doing out in the lake in the middle of a storm?” asked Sam Goodlake, the lanky deputy.
“Good question,” Sheriff Wright said, bending over the body. “Anyone got an answer?”
“She’s holding something,” Dave Roberts said, ignoring Wright’s query as he struggled with Emma’s frozen fingers.
They watched Dave Roberts pry open her hand, revealing a crusty piece of jewelry. After palming it once, he handed it to the sheriff.
“What is it?” Goodlake asked, craning his long neck for a better view.
“Looks like a cameo brooch.”
Sheriff Wright fingered the old brooch, caressing its alabaster edges as Roberts took photos of the body and surrounding area. Something behind Emma’s ear caught the sheriff’s attention. Using both hands, he gently canted the old woman’s chin, brushing aside her salt and pepper hair to expose caked blood that had oozed from a swollen contusion on the back of her head. After a careful rotation, he rested the old woman’s head in soft earth, and then slipped the brooch into his khaki shirt, giving the body one last look.
“Sam, check the lakefront for evidence. I’m taking a little walk down to the lodge to question Pearl and Raymond.”
Sam had already begun helping Dave Roberts stuff Emma’s body into a rubber bag and didn’t bother replying to Wright’s request. A motorboat with a two-stroke engine droned across the lake, causing dozens of turtles to abandon their perches and splash into the water. The commotion failed to interrupt Sheriff Wright’s long stride.
Fitzgerald Lodge loomed in the distance, about a hundred yards from the lake’s edge. Backed by pine and live oak, the rustic abode formed an imposing edifice, dwarfing all other structures and outbuildings on the island. The once active resort had declined in recent years to little more than a worn and neglected fishing camp for locals.
Before her untimely demise, Emma Fitzgerald had planned to change all that. Sheriff Wright recognized the woeful cry of Pearl Johnson as he entered the door, knowing long before seeing her how distraught she must be. He followed her whimpers to Emma’s office at the end of a long hallway. There he found her and husband Raymond, along with Randy Rummels, a local attorney.
“You all right, Pearl?” he asked.
She wiped her mouth and nose with a paper napkin, blinking away her tears. “No sir, sheriff, I ain’t. I still can’t believe Miss Emma’s really dead. I should have hung around last night, knowing how blue she was.”
Taylor scrawled Pearl’s remark in a notebook he carried in the pocket of his Western-cut khaki shirt.
“Wasn’t your fault.”
Raymond banged the big oak desk with his formidable fist. “Miss Emma wouldn’t have gone out in no storm.”
“Calm yourself down. I’m sure no one carried her there,” Sheriff Wright said. “There’s one big bump on the back of her head. Maybe a limb blew down in the wind and knocked her into the lake. Who saw her alive last?”
“Guess it was me,” Pearl said. “I went home last night about ten. About the time the storm hit.”
“What were you doing here so late?”
“Miss Emma was brooding, and I didn’t want to leave her alone.”
Taylor Wright turned a chair around, straddled it and rested his arms on the backrest. “Brooding about what?”
“Bones Malone. They had an argument, and Miss Emma told him to pack his stuff and move off the island. He left without even bothering to take his things.”
Sheriff Wright digested this tidbit of information. “Come to think of it, I haven’t seen him around lately. Know where he is, or what they were arguing about?”
Raymond and Pearl exchanged perplexed glances. Pearl said, “Whatever it was, Miss Emma took it pretty hard.”
“You think Bones is involved in Emma’s death?” Wright asked, removing his hat to scratch his bald spot.
“Why hell no,” Raymond said, turning away from the sheriff’s stare and gazing at the hardwood floor. “Maybe they had a little argument. Don’t matter none because I know Bones Malone loved that old lady.”
“Maybe so, but you said yourself Miss Emma wouldn’t have wandered down to the lake in a thunderstorm, no matter how upset she was.”
“She was getting along in age,” Randy Rummels said.
“Eighty,” Raymond said. “And still sharp as any twenty-year-old.”
Sheriff Wright tapped the back of the chair twice, rearranged the hat atop his head, stood and leaned against one of the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lining the room.
“What are you doing here, Randy?” he asked. “Smell a healthy legal fee all the way from town?”
Rummels brushed aside Sheriff Wright’s professional slur without protest. “How you doing, Sheriff? Guess you know Daddy was Miss Emma’s lawyer. I’m discussing her estate with Pearl and Raymond. Emma died intestate.”
“You’re full of shit,” Raymond said. “Miss Emma’s had a will for years. I saw it, and so did Pearl. You know it’s true because your daddy wrote it.”
Randy Rummels shook his head. “I’m Emma Fitzgerald’s attorney now, and I’m telling you, she never had a will.”
“Your father was Miss Emma’s lawyer,” Pearl said.
“Well Daddy’s dead, and nothing ever went on in that firm that I don’t know about. Believe me, Emma died intestate.”
Raymond’s glare left no doubt of his emotional frame of mind or his feelings about Rummels’ statement.
“You’re a liar.”
“Who you calling a liar?” Rummels said, jumping to his feet and standing eyeball to eyeball with the larger black man. “You two are just trying to horn in where you don’t belong.”
“Wait just a minute here,” Sheriff Wright said, stepping between the two men. “What difference does it make anyway?”
“Because Miss Emma’s will deeds us half the marina,” Pearl said.”
“Miss Emma couldn’t run it by herself,” Raymond added. “Or afford to pay much in the way of wages. She made up for it by willing us half the marina when she died.”
“You’re dreaming,” Rummels said. “There’s no record of any such transaction.”
Rummels’ declaration was more than Raymond could take. Clinching his hand, he lunged across the desk at the young lawyer. Sheriff Wright interceded again, this time grabbing Raymond’s wrist and backing him up with a combination of arm strength and steely eye contact. Rummels sat down, apparently grateful for the sheriff’s timely intervention.
“The bank has a mortgage on all Emma’s real property. The island, marina, and lodge that is. With no heir and no will,” he said, “Everything left in Emma’s estate will be used to settle her debt with the bank. I got no ax to grind with the Johnsons here. I’d as soon they got the place as have it go to the bank.”
“You’re crazy as hell,” Raymond said. “Miss Emma never borrowed a penny in her life. She don’t owe the bank nothing.”
“We have her signature to prove she does,” Rummels said.
Sheriff Wright glanced at Pearl and Raymond, not letting his glimpse linger. “So what happens to Raymond and Pearl?”
“Nothing,” Rummels said. “They simply vacate the premises.”
“We’ve lived here thirty years,” Pearl said. “Miss Emma sold us the house we live in and the yard around it. She filed the deed at the courthouse in Deception and left a copy in her safety deposit box.”
Rummels simply shook his head. “No deed, no record of a deed, no way.”
Talk of the marina had propelled Raymond into a rapidly disintegrating emotional state. Rocking side to side, he said, “We don’t want a damn thing that ain’t coming to us. Miss Emma didn’t intend to leave Fitzgerald Island to the Bank of Deception. Check it out at the courthouse, and you’ll see we ain’t lying.”
“Never trust a white man,” Randy Rummels said with a smirk. “Or in this case, a white woman.”
Sheriff Wright frowned at Rummels and pointed toward the door. “Why don’t you get the hell out of here? You’re just causing trouble.”
“Not until I finish my business.”
“It’s finished,” Wright said.
Randy Rummels didn’t miss the angry inflection in Sheriff Wright’s voice. Realizing he was already pushing his luck, he folded his portfolio and started for the door.
“Fine. You straighten it out with these people.”
“Watch your tone, Randy,” Wright said. “These people took care of Emma for thirty years and deserve a little respect.”
“The only thing they deserve is a quick trip off the island. I don’t make the rules. I just see they’re carried out.”
Taylor Wright’s own adrenaline was pumping, as was that of young Rummels’. Neither reacted immediately to Pearl’s words.
“Maybe Miss Emma’s heir can settle the bank debt.”
Rummels glanced first at Pearl, then at Wright. “What did you say?”
“I said Miss Emma has an heir.”
“There’s no indication of that,” Rummels said, slamming his portfolio back on the desktop.
“Yes, there is,” Pearl said. “Miss Emma has a nephew in Oklahoma.”
“Says who?” Rummels said.
Pearl opened the top drawer of the desk, took out an opened letter, and handed it to Rummels. After removing the contents slowly, the lawyer made a big production of reading it. When he finished, Sheriff Taylor Wright took it from him.
“What’s this all about?” he asked after glancing at the letter.
“Miss Emma received it about a week ago and couldn’t wait to call the man who sent it. Seems he’s a private investigator in Oklahoma. A young man raised in foster homes.”
“Already sounds bogus to me,” Rummels said.
“It’s the truth,” Pearl said. “When Miss Emma talked with the man on the phone, he told her he could prove he was her nephew.”
“I’ll believe it when I see his proof,” Rummels said.
“What happens until then?” Wright said.
“Not a damn thing.” Rummels turned before reaching the door. Pointing his finger at Raymond, he said, “Until this matter is assessed, don’t run off with anything on this island. Sheriff, I’m holding you responsible.”
Sheriff Wright waited for the front door to slam before handing the letter to Pearl.
“What’s this all about? Emma had no family I know of, and I’ve lived here all my life. Where did this long lost nephew come from?”
“Miss Emma’s wandering brother,” Pearl said. “He had a son while traipsing around the oil patch up in Oklahoma.”
“You think this man is Emma’s nephew and can prove it?”
Pearl lowered her eyes. “Don’t really know, Sheriff Taylor. I just made that part up because that little weasel Rummels made me so mad. The rest is true, though.”
“Could just be a scam artist that sees an opportunity to cut a fat hog. P.I.s search for lost heirs all the time.”
“We don’t know nothing about that,” Raymond said. “I do know Miss Emma thought he was for real. She was going to call Randy Rummels to change her will.”
“Randy says there is no will. Never was one.”
“Uh huh,” Raymond said as he stalked out of the room.
Wright tapped the desktop twice before following him. Halfway into the hall he turned and scratched his head.
“Why would Rummels destroy Emma’s will and let the bank take her property instead of letting you two have a shot at it?”
“You’re the sheriff,” Pearl said. “You tell us.”
Sheriff Taylor Wright tipped his hat. “I’ll check it out.”
“You’ll get your chance, Sheriff. Miss Emma’s nephew is on his way to Texas. James T. McDivit should be here any minute. When he arrives, you can check him out for yourself.”
James T. “Buck” McDivit had come to Texas for answers. What he found was a giant lake amid a maze of vines, creepers and lily pads; a place that seemed more like Louisiana than Texas. He quickly realized it was different from both states.
Cypress trees grew in abundance, both in the water and out, and Spanish moss, wafting in slow-motion waves, hung from their limbs, caressing the lake’s coffee-colored surface. Only the head of a slow-swimming snake disrupted the lake’s tranquility.
East Texas was a place far different from Buck’s own home on the rolling hills of central Oklahoma. This mysterious locale seemed more like a virtual botanical garden replete with subtropical greenery and a climate to match. He felt a thousand miles from home.
Interstate highway, replaced by rural Texas blacktop, had long since disappeared in his rearview mirror. Untended hollyhocks, blooming in lavender flower falls that saturated humid air with their cloying fragrances grew wild beside the road. Damp pathways, none leading anywhere in particular, pierced the tangle of vegetation as a flock of cattle egrets winged high overhead.
Egrets weren’t the only wildlife in abundance, nor were oak, cypress, and Hollyhock the only plants bordering the road. Cascades of blue impatiens, crimson-blossomed rosebushes, and clumps of green willow painted the terrain from a diverse palette of color. When a trucker blew his horn, waving an angry fist as he sped past, Buck realized he had slowed to less than twenty miles an hour. Taking the warning to heart, he pressed the accelerator and followed him.
Dense vegetation parted as he rounded the next bend. It left him little time to worry about the angry trucker and prevented him from further gawking at the birds and wildflowers. In front of him lay a sleepy Victorian village dwarfed by the mammoth lake. Buck quickly realized Deception, Texas was the literal end of the road.
Deception, once a riverboat stop along the way between New Orleans and Jefferson, was situated many secluded miles from the nearest Interstate highway. The old riverboat port had managed to preserve much of its antebellum flavor. Many buildings, some with ornate decks jutting out over the water, still fronted the lake. Tourists wandered the narrow streets, gazing at storefront displays or licking Sno-cones purchased from vendors vying for space in the town square. Buck parked his Ramcharger and stepped out for a better look.
Near a little park fronting the lake, Buck discovered everything wasn’t old. Bulldozers and heavy equipment were at work clearing trees and leveling dirt. Someone was building something large and incongruous with the sleepy village and had already cut a large brown swath across the flourishing sea of green.
He completed a quick swing through Deception before returning to his truck and driving to the rear of the Pelican Restaurant. An attorney awaited inside the Pelican to discuss his late aunt’s estate. Their recent telephone conversation had left Buck leery about their impending meeting and little doubt that the attorney considered him a money-seeking opportunist.
Afternoon shadows had begun draping the village as gray clouds formed out over the lake. The back of the restaurant seemed unexceptional except for the stacks of fish traps and piles of gill netting strewn across the ground. As he scanned the area, someone came crashing through the screen door. The disruption ended his thoughts about his meeting with the attorney.
A man that looked big enough to take care of himself tumbled across the loading dock, slamming headfirst into a packing crate. Lying in a daze, he rubbed his head as two men piled out the door after him.
“Get your black ass out of here,” the first attacker said, delivering a vicious kick to the fallen man’s ribs.
The big man managed to roll off the dock and crawl on his hands and knees to shelter behind a broken fish trap.
“Next time use the back door,” the second attacker said. “Our customers don’t want no stinking niggah shuffling past their tables while they’re trying to eat.”
The two men halted their attack but stood at the door, glaring at the black man on his knees below them. The taller of the two was bone thin with scraggly hair capping his acne-scarred face. His shorter partner, whose diminutive height probably resulted from some congenital deformity, was anything but thin. He stood hunched over in a permanent crouch, a large hump crowning his twisted back. Neither man would have had much luck in a beauty contest.
Buck could tell by their attitudes they probably liked it that way. He waited until they’d slammed the door behind them before helping the big man to his feet.
“Take more than those two to get the best of ol’ Raymond Johnson,” the man said, dusting himself off.
“Looks to me like they did a pretty good job.”
“They got the drop on me when my back was turned,” Raymond Johnson said, rubbing his jaw.
“Take it easy big fellow and next time watch your back,” Buck said.
He quickly forgot the incident and strolled to the front of the restaurant. Daylight was waning, but the cobbled parking lot continued radiating heat absorbed from late afternoon sun. He found it cooler inside, frigid air chilling the perspiration on his forehead as he opened the restaurant door. Wiping his face with his handkerchief, he greeted the hostess waiting in the entryway.
“I’m meeting a man named Rummels,” Buck said. “Know if he’s here yet?”
The young woman was dressed in a colorful period costume. Antebellum, he guessed. She had a friendly smile, a red bow in her hair, and made him feel welcome. The woman’s warm smile was no accident. Buck McDivit was young, tall, and good-looking, with the body of a trained athlete and piercing blue eyes of a movie star. Dressed in jeans, cowboy boots, and western-cut shirt, he could have passed as a young John Wayne.
“Mister Rummels just phoned,” she said, quickly flipping through the guest register on the entryway lectern. “I’ll seat you, and you can wait for him in the dining area.”
She led Buck into the main dining room where potted ferns hung in garlands from rough-hewn rafters. Checkerboard tablecloths draped wooden tables, and the restaurant’s rustic decor blended perfectly with the aroma of frying cornmeal floating in from the kitchen. An outside veranda flanked the room on three sides. A damp breeze moved along by slow-moving ceiling fans, wafted in through the open door.
“Enjoy your dinner,” she said, seating him at a corner table overlooking the lake.
Buck barely had time to adjust his chair and stare out at the darkening sky before a waitress appeared and asked him what he wanted to drink. Her red bow went well with a thick thatch of black hair and her own colorful period dress.
She smiled when he said, “Coors, please and keep the frosted mug.”
Buck had finished his beer before Raymond Rummels arrived. Rummels was wearing dark pinstripes, despite the oppressive outside heat, and a constipated smile. He looked about thirty, trying to pass for fifty.
“You James T. McDivit?”
“One in the same,” Buck said, reaching to shake the young lawyer’s hand.
Rummels joined him at the table, not bothering to thank their waitress when she brought him a Manhattan, and Buck another Coors.
“Catfish is the specialty of the house,” he said.
Buck gave the young woman a thumb up and said, “Sounds good to me.”
Rummels dismissed her with a dispassionate nod. “I’ll come right to the point, McDivit. I’m unaware of any heirs to the Emma Fitzgerald estate. She had no children, adopted or otherwise. Her only brother died years ago in an oil field accident in Oklahoma. To my knowledge, he had no children.”
“He had one,” Buck said. “Me.”
“Then why is there no record of his marriage, or your birth?”
“Because he never married. He carried on for a while with a teenage girl, my mother, and I was the result. The family forced her to give me up.”
“Why didn’t you come forward before now?”
“I didn’t know I had any relatives until recently. I’m a private investigator in Oklahoma City. While reviewing some public records for a client, I came across a newspaper article that got me thinking about my own roots. Once I decided to track down my parents, the rest was easy. John McDivit was definitely my father.”
“Can you prove it?”
Buck handed Rummels a package of information and waited as he pawed through it.
“What is all this?” the lawyer asked.
“Birth certificate, eye-witness accounts, and a statement from my mother. She had pictures, some belongings, and even John McDivit’s medical records. There’s no doubt I’m his son and that he was the younger brother of Emma Fitzgerald.”
“These could be forgeries.”
“How do I know that?”
“You’d believe a federal judge, wouldn’t you?”
The hint of a snicker appeared on Rummels’ face but vanished just as quickly. “You bring one with you?”
“No, but I have this affidavit.”
Buck handed Rummels a letter his old friend Judge Beamon Dawkins had written for him before leaving Oklahoma. In it, Judge Beamon attested to Buck’s good word and the authenticity of the documents he’d presented the lawyer. Rummels held the letter long enough to read it three times.
“Excuse me a moment,” he finally said, hurrying away from the table without explanation.
Remnant daylight had all but disappeared, replaced now by intermittent lightning that veined the sky over the lake. Thunder, shaking the roof and windows, soon followed, causing the lights to dim. Rummels rejoined Buck at the table.
“Assuming your papers are in order and you inherit Emma Fitzgerald’s estate, what exactly do you intend to do with it?”
“Don’t know,” Buck said. “It was never my intention to stake out my aunt’s estate. I only wanted to meet the old lady and discuss my father’s family with her.”
“Then you deny your inheritance?”
“Didn’t say that. What exactly is my inheritance?”
Rummels cleared his throat, finished his Manhattan, and waved for another.
“Emma Fitzgerald’s estate consists of an island on Caddo Lake and everything on it. She has some money in the bank. Just enough to pay for the probate.”
“What about the island?” Buck asked.
“Emma Fitzgerald operated a lodge and fishing camp, discontinuing lodge service about four years ago. Though the marina is still operable, there are a couple of problems, Mr. McDivit.”
“Emma Fitzgerald borrowed money from the bank last year to remodel the lodge and marina. She put up the island as collateral. Emma failed to make a payment on the note for the last six months, and the bank had begun foreclosure proceedings before her death. The hearing is in ten days. If you want to prevent the foreclosure, you have ten days to repay the bank loan, along with court costs and accumulated attorney fees.”
“That’s not much notice. You mentioned a second problem.”
Rummels rustled his yellow pad, leaning forward in his chair. “They found Emma Fitzgerald floating in the lake. Pearl Johnson, her housekeeper, says she was despondent. The coroner considered that and ruled her death a suicide. I’m afraid that nullifies Emma’s life insurance.”
“No one said anything to me about life insurance or suicide.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “When they found Emma, she had something in her hand,” Rummels dropped a crusted cameo brooch into Buck’s open palm. “Depression sometimes takes people to the edge. In Emma’s case, it sent her over the edge.”
Nearby thunder shook the rafters followed by slow rain drumming the roof and windows.
Rummels brow furrowed when Buck asked, “What if I pay off the note?”
“Well, of course, you have that option. Is that your plan?”
Buck had neither assets nor collateral to satisfy Aunt Emma’s note. Rummels didn’t know that. Tapping his chin as if he were considering it, he said, “Don’t know yet.”
“Pardon me a moment,” Rummels said. He returned shortly with another man. “This is Mr. Hogg Nation. He owns the Pelican.”
The distinguished gentleman with the odd name had green eyes, short hair, and specks of white frosting his head. Despite his hair color, his face proclaimed him no older than forty.
“At your disposal, Mr. McDivit. Hope you’re enjoying our hospitality. Your meal and drinks are on the house tonight.”
Buck managed a nod and half smile. Raymond Rummels was wringing his hands, his own expression having turned sour.
“Mr. Nation is also my client. He wishes to purchase Fitzgerald Island from you. Two-hundred thousand dollars is a generous offer, Mr. McDivit. Enough to pay the bank note and leave twenty-five thousand for your troubles.”
Nation’s proposal caught Buck by surprise. When he finally managed a reply, he said, “Thanks, but I’d like to visit the island before I decide.”
“Take your time and enjoy the catfish,” Nation said, moving away toward the kitchen.
Randy Rummels remained standing until his client had departed, the waitress arriving with a bell-shaped glass filled with an icy concoction.
“Mr. Nation would like you to try a Hurricane. It’s the house specialty.”
She winked and hurried away.
It was raining harder now, water beading down the picture window in soft sheets. Buck sipped the sugary drink. Rain and alcohol had all but hypnotized him when a familiar high-pitched voice returned his attention to the restaurant. Staring across the crowded room, he spotted the two men involved in the incident behind the restaurant. They were drinking and talking loudly, even above the din of the crowd.
“Who are those two men?”
Rummels was chewing on the straw of his Manhattan. “Humpback and Deacon John,” he said. “They work for Mr. Nation.” Before Buck could inquire further, the lawyer glanced at his watch. “I have another appointment. Raymond Johnson, an employee of the marina on Fitzgerald Island, will pick you up shortly and take you there.” Handing Buck his business card, he said, “You have ten days to make up your mind.”
Thunder shook the roof as Randy Rummels tapped the back of his chair and started away. Buck wondered, as the lawyer departed, why the man’s crooked grin gave him an uneasy feeling in the pit of his gut.
The friendly waitress soon appeared with hush puppies, catfish, and another hurricane. Buck handed her his empty glass and took a quick gulp from the fresh drink. The spicy catfish tasted wonderful and whetted his growing thirst. He was feeling light-headed when the waitress appeared for the final time.
“Raymond Johnson is waiting for you on the back porch,” she said.
“Thanks,” he said, stumbling when he tried to get out of the chair. “Which way?”
She pointed him to the back door. He was surprised when he realized the person waiting for him was the large black man involved in the scuffle behind the restaurant. Before he could ponder the coincidence, he caught his foot on a net and tumbled into the big man’s outstretched arms.
“Have yourself a little too much of Mr. Nation’s hospitality?”
“Guess I did. Was that you that got yourself kicked out the door a little earlier?”
“Mr. Nation’s boys,” he said without explanation. “You probably don’t remember me. I’m Raymond Johnson. You Mr. McDivit?”
Johnson stared at Buck McDivit’s extended hand and finally shook it. “If you ain’t through eating yet, I’ll wait out here.”
“I’m done,” Buck said, unable to stifle a drunken giggle.
“Good. Don’t need no more trouble tonight. Let’s get out of here.”
Concurring with Johnson, Buck followed him off the porch. By now, his head was swimming. His vision was blurry, and tongue thick.
“Where’s your car?” Raymond asked.
“Truck’s in the back.”
The big black man grabbed Buck, supporting his weight and ignoring his helpless giggles. Raymond left him on the steps while he retrieved his suitcase from the truck. The rain had slackened as he herded him and his bag down the slope to the lake where a gentle breeze was blowing across the water. It caused the boat, and Buck’s head on the side of the boat, to rock with the waves. Raymond Johnson untied the bowline and pushed away from the dock.
“Couple of miles to the island,” he said, maneuvering through a stand of cypress trees surrounding the shadow-dark shoreline. “You okay?”
Buck answered with a giddy laugh. “I think someone spiked my drink.”
“Sure they did,” Johnson said as the high-pitched outboard motor drowned out Buck’s slurred words and any further attempt at conversation.
As the boat glided across the rain-dimpled water, Buck closed his eyes, his mind awash with flickering moonbeams splaying the lake’s murky surface. Half an hour later, they landed on the island. When they reached a large two-storied house, Raymond Johnson dragged him upstairs and dumped him on a feather bed.
The suitcase made a hollow thump when it hit the floor, the door shutting behind Raymond as he exited with a damp swoosh. Locked in a drunken stupor, Buck didn’t really care.
He lay there for what seemed like hours, mesmerized by slow rain drumming the tin roof as he stared at the ceiling’s darkness. He finally stumbled out of bed, hoping to find an aspirin for his throbbing head. Unable to locate the lights or an appropriate pill, he embarked instead on a late-night tour of the house.
Moonlight through open windows guided him back down the stairs where he found a liquor cabinet amid stormy shadows and resident gloom. What the hell, he thought. A little hair of the dog couldn’t make him feel any worse than he already did. Shattering one of the bottles in an eruption of flying glass, the ensuing explosion failed to deter him. Slugging whiskey straight from an unbroken bottle, he headed down a dark hallway, glassy shards crunching beneath his boots.
Buck stumbled through the house, finally finding a door that led outside. Soft rain continued falling, a few rays of moonlight penetrating the cover of clouds. Reflections off the lake beckoned. Wobbling toward the water’s edge, he dribbled whiskey from his open mouth and down his neck, and then howled at the moon. When he reached the lake, he tripped on a cypress knee, tumbling into the mud. Revived by the dank odor of warm rain and rotting vegetation, he watched dull light radiate from a pinpoint across the lake. This time it wasn’t the moon. Even after rubbing his eyes, he couldn’t make it disappear. Instead, it grew larger, drawing ever closer.
Sitting in the mud, too stunned to move, he swayed as the vague outline of a veil shrouded apparition floated toward him. He bit his lip, pain failing to convince him he was coherent. When the apparition stopped directly in front of him, he could see it was a girl.
A translucent shawl clung to her thin frame, icy mist drifting around her shoulders, chilling warm night air. Tears flowed down her cheeks. When she reached out to him, his neck grew inexplicably warm. Aunt Emma’s brooch in his hand began pulsating with pink light as the translucent body of the ghostly vision gleamed brightly.
He blinked, opening his eyes to see the girl had disappeared, leaving him unsure of what he’d seen. Still very much inebriated, he managed to stumble back to the lodge where he passed out before hitting the sheets.