Southern Ghost Wranglers, Book 4
May 14, 2019
It’s a special night in Haunted Hollow, Alabama. The second most haunted town in the country will witness the yearly appearance of the spirit called the Backwoods Banshee.
Blissful and her gang of ghost wranglers, Ruth and Alice, are ready for the sighting. But when a rival band of geriatric hunters bet the Southern Ghost Wranglers that they won’t see the banshee first, the deal is on. The cost of losing? Public humiliation.
Blissful is determined to win the wager. Yet when the bet leads to murder and Ruth becomes the primary suspect, Blissful is determined to prove Ruth innocent.
If only life were that simple. To find the real killer, Blissful must strike a deal with the batty banshee, turn to her long-lost biological mother for help, and face a future that may not involve Roan Storm, the man Blissful is crazy about.
As Blissful closes in on the killer, she finds herself in the sites of the murderer.
Can she solve the murder before Ruth is convicted of a crime she didn’t commit? Or will Blissful become the killer’s next victim?
“Blissful, you’ve got to get ready for the hunt of a lifetime.”
I rolled my eyes and pinned my lips shut. As much as I wanted to argue with Ruth and Alice that I had already hunted the ghost of a lifetime, I knew being contrary wouldn’t get me anywhere.
“Oh?” I quirked a brow. “The hunt of a lifetime?”
“Well, yes. Ruth wouldn’t claim that if it wasn’t true.” Alice Cassidy, a plump woman who always carried a tin of cookies in her purse, pulled a pair of green pants splotched with dark olive and khaki blobs from her handbag.
The green pants had short legs and were slimmer than Alice. “Who are those camouflage pants for?”
Ruth Biggs, a thin woman with her white hair pulled into a bun and an attitude for no nonsense, pointed a finger at me. “Those are for you.”
My gaze shifted between the two women. “Why is that?”
“Because, Blissful,” Alice cooed, “you’re going to need the camouflage. We’re headed into the forest.”
“To hunt ghosts,” I said dryly. “I’ll need camouflage?”
Ruth and Alice exchanged a look. Alice replied, “Yes. What’s so confusing about that?”
I raked my fingers through my hair. I didn’t want to explain that it made no sense to wear camouflage around spirits. It wasn’t as if the spirits cared if they saw us or not.
Oh, by the way, the name’s Blissful Breneaux, and I see dead people. I talk to them, too, and send them into the light. It’s a thankless job really. For the most part, unless I’m helping out a civilian, regular people don’t care about my skills.
Perfectly fine with me. I don’t live my life trying to make others happy anyway. That’s not my goal.
“Can you explain to me again why we’re going to the forest? I don’t understand.”
“Because, Blissful”—Alice thrust the pants into my arms and shooed me into my bedroom—“this is the one night a year when the Backwoods Banshee is guaranteed to show up.”
I slipped out of my super comfy if not fit for society leggings and shimmied into the pants.
“Do these come with a shirt?”
“Oh, I’ve got that,” Ruth answered from the hall. I opened the door wide enough for my hand to slide through and felt something stiff slip into my palm.
I squeezed the door shut and stared at the hideous button-down. It was thick with buttons all the way to the collar. I rolled my eyes and thanked the heavens that my boyfriend, Roan Storm, wouldn’t be coming along for this little jaunt through the woods before I yanked off my shirt and pulled on the new one.
When I was fully dressed, I stepped into the hall. “Well? How do I look?”
Ruth and Alice stared at me before turning to each other and bursting into laughter.
My cheeks burned with embarrassment. “What?”
Ruth wiped tears from her eyes. “Nothing. You look perfect, Blissful.”
I shot her a hard look and stomped back to my bedroom to find a mirror.
My naturally purple hair was the only saving grace about my appearance. Seriously. The pant legs came up to my ankles, and the shirt hung down to my knees. I looked like—heck, I don’t know what I looked like, but whatever it was, I didn’t need to be seen in public this way.
“Oh no,” I said. “This isn’t going to work.”
Ruth and Alice rushed in. “You look fine.” Ruth grabbed my shirt and tucked it forcefully into my waistband. “No one will say anything.”
“Yes,” Alice agreed, “they’ll all be dressed just like you. Plus it’s dark. There’s no need to worry. It’s not a fashion show.”
I brushed Ruth’s hands away and rocked back on my heels. I folded my arms. “What do y’all mean, this isn’t a fashion show and no one will say anything? I thought we were doing this alone?”
Ruth got her hands on me long enough to finish tucking in the tail. “Oh no. Lots of ghost hunters come to investigate this haunting. Like we said, the Backwoods Banshee always appears this night. It’s sort of a regional party.”
My eyes nearly bulged from my head. “And you want me to go dressed like this?”
“It’s the best we could do, Blissful,” Alice argued. “It’s not as if you have to get married in this. Besides, it’s always lots of fun.”
“For the most part it is, I reckon,” Ruth added. “Come on, Blissful. Where’s your sense of adventure?”
I pointed to my bed. “With my really comfortable leggings.”
“I tell you what,” Alice offered, “we’ll bring you a change of clothes so that when the whole thing’s over, you can get back into your regular outfit and you won’t have to ride home looking like you outgrew your child-sized camouflage outfit.”
Alice and Ruth stood stiffly for a moment before bursting into laughter.
“Ha, ha. Yes, it’s all very funny.” I shook my head. “Fine. I’ll go like this, but I will take a change of clothes.”
Ruth slid her arms through a camouflage jacket. “Great. In that case, I guess we’re all ready.”
“Let me just get my box of water balloons. You never know—we might catch the banshee this time,” Alice said hopefully.
Water-filled balloons wiggled and bobbed in the cardboard container. If I’d told her once, I’d told Alice a thousand times that water balloons wouldn’t hold a spirit.
For some reason she just didn’t listen.
We headed out my front door. I’d started toward my ancient Land Cruiser when Ruth stopped me. “Where are you going?”
I frowned. “To my truck.”
“We’re not taking that.”
“Then what are we riding in?”
Alice nodded to a two-seater all-terrain vehicle. “We’re riding in Ruth’s ATV.”
I nearly slapped my face. “What?”
Ruth nodded. “It’s the only way to get into certain parts of the forest. The woods are dense.”
“But there’s no seat for me.”
Ruth climbed in and pointed to the back bed. “You’ve sat in there before. You can do it again.”
I groaned. This night was quickly going from bad to worse. “Promise you won’t bounce me out?”
Ruth smiled at me over her shoulder. “I promise to do my best.”
“Great,” I said dryly, with little hope that she’d keep her promise. I unhooked the tailgate and climbed on up.
Ruth started the engine and headed down the street. When we reached an intersection, instead of staying on the road, Ruth edged the ATV onto someone’s yard until we disappeared into dense foliage beside the house.
My throat fluttered with panic. “Aren’t we going to stick to the streets?”
“No,” Ruth shot over her shoulder. “The only way to get to the right part of the forest is to cut through the residential neighborhoods. All the way there!”
I gripped the frame of the vehicle and said a prayer that we’d make it to this place alive. Or at least that we didn’t get arrested first.
While we bounced through thick brush and I dodged branches that threatened to poke my eyes out, Ruth started up a conversation. She had to yell over the rumbling motor, which didn’t seem to bother her any.
Ruth peered in the rearview mirror. “How’s your mother, Blissful?”
I shot her a dark look. “She’s fine.”
Alice twisted her head to meet my gaze. She pulled off her thick Coke-bottle-lensed glasses and cleaned them with a handkerchief. “You haven’t talked to her, have you?”
“Of course I have.”
Alice stared at me for a good long moment before leaning over to Ruth and shouting above the engine. “She hasn’t spoken to her mother.”
“Blissful.” If Ruth could’ve wagged a finger at me and avoided a head-on collision with a tree, I’m pretty sure she would’ve done so. But given that it was dark and the brambles thick, Ruth didn’t partake in any sort of finger wag.
But that didn’t stop her from reprimanding me with her tone. “I’m ashamed that you haven’t spoken to her. This is the woman who gave birth to you.”
“She’s also the nun who gave me up for adoption because she got pregnant by a priest.” I did not try to hide the bitterness in my voice.
“A lot of children are given up for adoption,” Alice added, “and they’re more than happy to meet their birth mothers.”
“Well consider me an anomaly.”
“Why do you want to be different?” Alice said innocently. “You already have violet hair. How much more different do you need to be?”
“It’s not about that.” I swatted a branch before it impaled me. “It’s about the fact that she could’ve kept me. They’d already betrayed their vows. Why’d they have to betray me, too?”
Ruth and Alice exchanged another look.
“What? You think I should just accept her with open arms? Is that it?” I glanced into the dark forest with disgust. “I could’ve used some help with my clairvoyant powers. It’s rough growing up being the only kid who can see ghosts. I got teased a lot.”
“Oh, I completely understand,” Alice said sympathetically. “You should’ve been like me, the only kid who came to school with pockets full of brownies. Every day I’d go to school with those or muffins in my pockets. It didn’t help that I was plump. The kids always made fun of me. But not before they helped themselves to my goodies.”
“They sound like real jerks.”
“They were, and Birda Grice was the worst. You would’ve thought I had sneaked into her bedroom at night and stolen all her Mary Janes the way she snatched at my brownies.”
That entire last sentence sounded completely wrong. The idea of someone snatching Alice’s brownies was enough to make me laugh, but I held it in for fear of Alice questioning my reaction. Me trying to explain why her brownie comment was funny would give me a headache.
“Well, Birda Grice did well enough for herself,” Ruth said. “She wouldn’t want your brownies anymore.”
Small orbs of light winked through the trees. “Are those lights up there?”
“Yep.” Ruth slowed the ATV. “Looks like we’ve just about made it.”
The smell of burning hickory filled the air. “Is someone cooking?”
“Oh, that’s Buster Lindley. He always comes out here and smokes a pork butt. Gives everybody something to eat while we wait until midnight to hunt for the banshee.”
“He smokes a pork butt?” I had to wrap my mind around the idea that somehow this ghost hunt had become a tailgate party.
“And Oscar Dundy brings the pineapple moonshine.”
I folded my arms against a cold breeze. “Well, I’d like to keep my eyesight, so I’m going to stay away from the homemade moonshine.”
Ruth slowed the ATV to a crawl, and we cut a path through the forest until we reached a group of folks who all wore camouflage, same as us.
I slowly untangled my legs from their cramped position of being tucked half under me. My calves tingled as the blood flowed back into my veins.
“Ugh,” I groaned. “I’m sitting up front on the way back. Alice, you’re just going to have to share your seat.”
“If you say so,” she mumbled. Alice strapped on a hat decorated with small tree branches. One fell straight into her eyes.
“You’re going to trip over your feet if you wear that,” Ruth said.
“I wear it every year,” Alice said stiffly.
“And you fall every year. I swear, Alice. If you break one bone, I’ll give you some moonshine to dull the pain and move on. This is too important for you to screw up.”
I glanced at the folks who’d already arrived. I easily spotted Buster and his portable smoker. The man was six foot and two hundred forty pounds. A stained white apron was wrapped over his bulging belly.
My gaze shifted to Oscar, with his lithe frame and gallon jugs of clear liquid.
Death in a jug, I figured. Anyone who made homemade moonshine was taking risks in my opinion.
Right then, two more ATVs pulled up. Four old women, around the same age as Ruth and Alice, climbed out. They were dressed in camouflage as well, only one of the women’s hair was woven into a huge beehive.
“Who are they?”
“They,” Ruth said in a biting tone, “are Birda Grice, Tallulah Tomlin, Pearl Matthews and Cora Wall.”
“They look serious,” I said, noting the scowls on their faces.
“Oh they are,” Alice chimed in. “Years ago Birda wrote a best-selling book on haunted houses called Hauntings in the South. Tallulah, Pearl and Cora are all ghost hunters with her. Birda wanted to open an investigating store like we did.”
Ruth smirked. “But we beat her to it. She thought the book would be enough to keep her memory alive, but it turned out a lot of folks have forgotten about Birds and her ghost investigation team.”
I quirked a brow. “So she’s jealous of you? Is that why she’s scowling?”
Ruth patted her pockets in search of something. “Yes, that would be correct.”
“Well, maybe everyone will be nice tonight,” I murmured.
I turned away from Ruth and Alice and was about to straighten my own clothing when a voice popped up beside me.
“Well, look at you. Did someone dip you in shrink-wrap or just your clothes?”
I groaned. Great. The one person I didn’t want to see me dressed like this was here, in the middle of the forest at this strange haunted tailgate.
I slowly turned around and came face-to-face with a lumberjack-like chest. My chin tipped up, and my gaze kept traveling north until it landed on a brown-haired, brown-eyed hunk of man with a lopsided grin.
“Did someone just add water to you?” I said smartly. “Looks like you’ve got growth hormone on overdrive.”
Roan laughed. He swiped a finger under his eye. “You got me. I haven’t stopped growing, and someone stunted yours. Let me guess—too much caffeine as a child?”
I swatted his chest playfully, and Roan pulled me into a bear hug. He smelled of cinnamon and coffee. He’d probably eaten a cinnamon roll on his way over. I briefly wondered if he’d brought any for me, and then I remembered he wasn’t even supposed to be here.
When I eased from his embrace, I tilted my head back. “Why are you here?”
He draped a hand over my shoulder and pivoted me back toward the crowd. “You’re kidding, right? Look at all this—there’s barbecue, illegal moonshine, old women in camouflage. I’d have to be dead to miss this.”
I bit back a laugh. “No, I’m serious.”
He shrugged. “Ruth and Alice called. They wanted to make sure that in case you went commando, I’d be here to rein you in.”
I shot him a scathing look. “Very funny.”
Roan shrugged. “I wanted to come to see if there was anything to it. I’ve heard about the banshee all my life, but I’ve never seen her. Now that I can maybe see some ghosts, I thought I’d give it a shot.”
A few weeks ago Roan’s latent demonologist powers had woken. He still wasn’t exactly sure what all he could do, but from what I’d seen—which was that I watched him send a spirit to the bad afterlife—Roan’s gifts were strong.
Stronger than mine, even.
All that whirled through my head as I watched the group of older ladies stomp out of their ATVs and approach Ruth and Alice.
The ladies said their hellos, and then suddenly voices rose.
“You know you stole that from me, Ruth Biggs.” Birda, with her hair teased into a foot-tall beehive, jutted her hips forward. “You know you stole the whole idea for Southern Ghost Wranglers from me. You did, Ruth. You know it. I know it.” She pointed at her group of women. “And they all know it, too. If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to make sure you regret ever stealing from me. I will go to my grave before I let you make money on my business, Ruth Biggs.” She poked the air. “You can count on that!”
I grimaced. Roan’s grip on my shoulder tightened. “It looks like it isn’t just the banshee screaming tonight.”
I gulped. “It looks like you’re right.”