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"The new series from the author of "The Silence of the Library "and "Murder Past Due."..
New York Times "bestselling author Miranda James returns to Athena, Mississippi, with an all-new mystery featuring Miss An'gel and Miss Dickce Ducote, two snoopy sisters who are always ready to lend a helping hand. But when a stressed socialite brings murder right to their doorstep, even they have trouble maintaining their Southern hospitality...
With the Mississippi sun beating down, An'gel and Dickce are taking a break to cool off and pet sit their friend Charlie Harris's cat, Diesel, when their former sorority sister, Rosabelle Sultan, shows up at their door unexpectedly, with her ne'er-do-well adult children not far behind.
Rosabelle's selfish offspring are desperate to discover what's in her will, and it soon becomes clear that one of them would kill to get their hands on the inheritance. Suddenly caught up in a deadly tangle of duplicitous suspects and deep-fried motives, it will take all of the sisters' Southern charm to catch a decidedly ill-mannered killer...
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Miranda James is a pseudonym for Dean James, the Agatha Award-winning author of several works of mystery nonfiction as well as four mystery series including the "New York Times "bestselling Cat in the Stacks series including such titles as "Out of Circulation," "File M for Murder," and "Classified as Murder."Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Please visit Diesel the cat at facebook.com/DieselHarriscat.
Readers might be wondering how to pronounce the rather unusual names of the Ducote Sisters. Here’s a quick guide:
Miss An’gel’s name is pronounced “ahn-JELL.”
Miss Dickce’s name is pronounced just like “Dixie.”
Their family name, Ducote, is pronounced “dew-COH-tee.”
Miss An’gel Ducote fixed her houseguest with a gimlet eye. “I expect you to behave like a proper gentleman while you’re here.”
Diesel Harris regarded his hostess unblinkingly for a moment before he meowed.
Miss Dickce Ducote snorted with laughter. “Good gracious, Sister, you don’t need to lecture him on how to conduct himself. Diesel has better manners than some of the two-legged fools who’ve set foot in Riverhill.”
“True.” Miss An’gel pursed her lips as she continued to regard the large Maine Coon cat. “He is in unfamiliar surroundings, though, and I’ve heard that cats don’t like change. He might be upset because Charlie and the rest of the family have gone off and left him.” She pointed to the frayed Aubusson carpet that covered a third of their front parlor. “I’m not sure this can withstand accidents, if you know what I mean.”
“Really, An’gel. That rug has been on the floor for a hundred and twenty years at least and has withstood far worse.” Dickce shook her head. “Diesel is a smart kitty. He already knows where we put his litter box. He’s not going to make a mess on one of our priceless antiques.”
“That’s all well and good.” An’gel glared at her sister, at eighty the younger by almost four years. “Even if his bathroom habits are impeccable, what shall we do if he starts clawing the furniture?”
“If you were this worried about the contents of the house, why did you ever agree to keep Diesel? Most of the furniture survived the Civil War and troops of Union and Confederate soldiers at various times. How much damage could one cat do?” Dickce glared right back. “Frankly, I seem to recall that you volunteered to cat-sit. Charlie never once opened his mouth to ask you. In fact, he looked mighty startled when you said we’d be delighted, though he’s such a gentleman, he hid it immediately.” She sat back, arms folded over her chest, and waited.
There was no arguing with Dickce when she was in one of her contrary moods. An’gel suppressed a sigh as she threw up her hands in mock surrender. Before she could speak, Diesel warbled loudly and placed his large right front paw on her knee. An’gel stared down into the cat’s eyes, and she would have sworn he was trying to reassure her.
Dickce pointed at the Maine Coon. “See? He’s telling you he’s going to be extra-special good.”
The triumphant note in Dickce’s voice irritated An’gel, but she pretended it didn’t. Instead she stroked the cat’s head and told him twice she knew he was a good boy.
“Come sit with me, Diesel.” Dickce patted the sofa cushion beside her. “You can stretch out and nap with your aunt Dickce.”
Diesel pawed at An’gel’s knee again and meowed. He gazed up at her, and she had the oddest feeling that he was asking her permission. At least the cat was smart enough to know who was really in charge here. “Go ahead, it’s fine with me.”
The cat blinked at her before he turned to amble over to the sofa. He jumped up beside Dickce and settled himself with his head and front legs in her lap. Dickce stroked him and grinned at her sister when Diesel started to purr loudly.
An’gel picked up her glass of sweet tea and sipped at it. There was nothing better during the dog days of summer. Their housekeeper, Clementine, made the best sweet tea in Athena County, if not in the whole state of Mississippi. “The only reason I’m glad to see August come around every year is the fact that we don’t have any committee meetings to attend, any garden club functions to arrange, or any other social commitments. It’s nice to have a vacation.”
“It sure is.” Dickce nodded. “I keep thinking we ought to retire and live a quieter life, but I know we’d both be bored and ready to strangle each other in a month or two.” She laughed. “This is a big house, but probably not big enough to keep us from getting on each other’s nerves every other minute.”
An’gel chose to ignore that leading remark. “Besides, you know as well as I do that no one else will keep things organized and running the way we do.” She shook her head. “If the community had to pay someone to do what we do, the town couldn’t afford it.” She felt a cool breeze across her neck as the air-conditioner kicked in. How had earlier generations of Ducotes survived the hot summers without it? She took another sip of tea.
Dickce frowned. “Did you hear that? Just before the air went on. Sounded like a car drove up.”
“I heard it.” An’gel stood. “We weren’t expecting visitors this afternoon. I’m not in the mood to entertain.”
“Tell whoever it is to go away.” Dickce yawned. “I think I’d like to go upstairs for a nap.”
An’gel strode to the front window and pulled the heavy red damask drapes aside to peer out at the driveway. “I don’t recognize the car, and I can’t see who’s driving. Clementine is probably taking her break now. I’ll go.”
The bell sounded before An’gel reached the door. She opened it to find a woman about her own age standing there, finger on the bell, poised to ring it again. Her hair was an unnatural shade of red, and her wrinkled face was devoid of makeup. She didn’t look like a salesperson, but she did seem vaguely familiar.
“Good afternoon. What can I do for you?”
Startled, the woman took a step back. “My goodness. An’gel, it’s you, isn’t it? I never expected you to answer the door. Surely you have a servant to do that.” She smiled. “Aren’t you going to ask me in?”
An’gel peered at the woman’s face as she tried to recall who she was. Recognition dawned, along with the first stirring of dismay. What on earth was Rosabelle Sultan doing here? The last time Rosabelle had visited, about fifteen years ago, she had stayed three weeks—two-and-a-half more than she was welcome—and had departed with a substantial, and not-yet-repaid, loan.
An’gel stepped back and waved the visitor in. “Of course I am, Rosabelle. This is a surprise. Weren’t you living in California?”
Rosabelle opened her mouth to speak. Her eyes widened, and she dropped her purse. She pointed to a spot behind An’gel. “What on earth is that?”
An’gel turned and saw the cat. “That’s Diesel. Dickce and I are cat-sitting for a friend.” She stooped to retrieve the visitor’s purse and handed it back. “I know he’s large, but he’s a pet. He’s friendly and gentle. You don’t have to be afraid of him.” And if the cat has any sense, he’ll stay away from you anyway, she added silently.
Rosabelle clasped the purse to her side. “If you say so, but I’ve never seen a house cat that big before. Does he have some kind of glandular condition?”
Diesel moved closer and stood by An’gel. He stared at the visitor but did not approach her. An’gel had never seen him act like that, but she couldn’t fault his intelligence. Rosabelle never brought good tidings. Besides, An’gel realized, Rosabelle smelled funny, like a sweaty bouquet of roses.
“No, he’s a Maine Coon. They are large cats, and he is larger than usual, about thirty-six pounds. Nothing unnatural, though.” An’gel turned and gestured for her guest to follow. “Dickce’s in the parlor. Come along and say hello.”
“I’m so happy to find you both home,” Rosabelle said, sounding tired. “I’ve been driving for such a long time. I’m just glad I remembered the way.”
“Wasn’t that lucky?” An’gel murmured. She raised her voice at the parlor door. “Dickce, you’ll never guess who it is. Rosabelle Sultan.”
Dickce’s gaze locked with her sister’s, and her mouth twisted in a brief grimace. An’gel gazed stonily back. They would find out soon enough what their former sorority sister wanted. Then, with a smile, Dickce stood to greet the visitor. “My goodness, Rosabelle, what a surprise this is.”
“Dickce, I declare, you are just as darling as ever. I never did know how you and An’gel managed to keep your figures.” She dropped her purse on the floor and plopped down beside Dickce. “I always felt like such a lump around you two.”
An’gel could have told her how, but good manners precluded her telling a guest that she always ate like a pig at a trough. She eyed their visitor critically. Perhaps Rosabelle had reformed her habits, or had been seriously ill. She was thinner than An’gel ever remembered seeing her. Her dress was at least two sizes too large, and it had surely come off a bargain-store rack. The hem of the skirt was unraveling on the right side, and the material had the threadbare look of a long-used garment. Rosabelle must have fallen on hard times. An’gel took a deep breath. She and Dickce were going to be hit up for money—money that would never be paid back, if the past loans were anything to go by.
“Would you like some sweet tea?” An’gel recalled her duties as a hostess. “Or something else?” Like leech repellent, she added silently.
“Sweet tea would be fine.” Rosabelle leaned back and closed her eyes. “That might revive me.”
“I’ll go,” Dickce said. “You rest there, and I’ll be back in a minute.” She frowned at An’gel as she headed toward the door. “Where is Diesel?”
Startled, An’gel glanced around. “He was with me in the hall. He didn’t go outside. Maybe he went to see Clementine.”
Dickce glanced at their visitor, who still had her eyes closed. She pointed at Rosabelle and pinched her nose before she left the room.
“What brings you all the way to Mississippi from California?” An’gel resumed her seat. “I can’t believe you drove all that way by yourself.”
Rosabelle’s eyelids fluttered open, and she blinked at An’gel. “Oh, dear, I fell asleep for a minute there. I am plumb worn down to the bone from all that driving.” She covered her mouth as she yawned. “It took me several days to get here, but I had to come.”
“Do you have business here? I didn’t know you still had family in the state.”
“Nobody in Corinth anymore,” Rosabelle said, her eyes tearing up. “Everyone left years ago. No, I came because I had to get away from California.”
An’gel waited a moment but Rosabelle did not continue. “We haven’t had a word from you in many, many years, I reckon. Last we heard, though, you had remarried.”
“That was my second husband.” Rosabelle nodded. “Tom Thurmond. He was a dear man, but he died seven years ago. I married again a while after Tom passed.” She sighed. “Antonio Mingione. Handsome as the devil, but a rat. A complete and utter rat.”
“A rat? Where?” Dickce sounded alarmed as she arrived with a silver tray bearing a glass of tea and a pitcher. “Maybe Diesel will catch it for us.”
“Not that kind of rat,” An’gel said. “A two-legged one. Rosabelle’s current husband.”
“No, not current.” Rosabelle sniffled. “He died a year ago.”
“My goodness, how awful.” Dickce handed their visitor the glass and took her place on the sofa.
Rosabelle sipped at the tea. “I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to be back here, where people know how to make sweet tea.” She drained the glass, and Dickce refilled it for her. “Thank you, so kind, like you always were. I could always rely on the Ducote sisters for their kindness.”
The sisters exchanged wary glances.
“We’ve always done our best.” Dickce patted the woman’s arm. “Sounds like you sure are in need of some kindness.”
“Kindness and sanctuary,” Rosabelle said. She burst into tears.
An’gel had seen this act before. No doubt the rat of a husband had run through her funds and left her destitute. The only way to deal with her was to be firm. “Buck up, now, and tell us what’s wrong.”
Rosabelle stared at her two hostesses in turn through streaming eyes. She looked so intentionally tragic, An’gel wanted to smack her.
“Come on, now,” Dickce said gently. “Whatever it is can’t be that bad.”
Rosabelle sniffed loudly and groped in the pocket of her dress for a tissue. “Oh, yes, it is. It’s murder.”
“Murder? What on earth are you talking about?” An’gel said.
Dickce spoke at the same time. “Who’s been murdered?”
Rosabelle glanced at each of them in turn. She drew a deep breath. “Me. I’m going to be murdered.”
Dickce suppressed a laugh. Rosabelle had a habit of uttering outrageous things in an attempt to garner sympathy, but claiming someone was trying to murder her was over the top, even for her. Dickce glanced at her sister. An’gel didn’t appear any more impressed than Dickce herself felt. The delicate but brief flare of An’gel’s nostrils demonstrated only irritation, not concern.
When she spoke, Dickce worked hard to keep her tone nonchalant. “Rosabelle, dear, why would anyone want to kill you, of all people?” Unless they were tired of you always begging for money and never repaying it, she thought.
“Dickce’s right,” An’gel said. “Someone would have to hate you tremendously to want to kill you. Surely no one hates you that much.”
Rosabelle whimpered and rubbed a hand across her face. “That’s just it. Someone does hate me that much.” She paused for a sobbing breath. “The trouble is, I don’t know which member of my family is behind it all.”
Dickce rolled her eyes at her sister. An’gel frowned. Dickce found it difficult to take their visitor seriously, but she knew An’gel would feel honor bound to listen to Rosabelle’s histrionics and try to make her see sense.
“Come now, pull yourself together.” An’gel’s brisk tone did not seem to affect Rosabelle’s soft sounds of distress. “What happened to make you think you’re the target of a murder plot?”
Rosabelle sighed and leaned back against the sofa cushion. “Little things. Little accidents.” She closed her eyes and whimpered yet again.
“What kind of accidents?” Dickce wondered if one of Rosabelle’s family members had tried to push her down the stairs. The temptation might be more than one of them could stand.
Rosabelle opened her eyes and stared at Dickce. “Oh, I know you both think I’m making this up, but I promise you these things happened.” She paused for a breath and glanced toward An’gel before she focused again on the younger sister. “Water on the stairs, for one thing. It happened three times, but luckily I spotted it each time and managed not to fall and break my neck.”
“Maybe your maid is sloppy,” Dickce suggested.
“I don’t have a maid. I can’t afford one.” Rosabelle sounded aggrieved. “Someone deliberately spilled water on the stairs—the marble stairs, mind you—so I would slip and tumble down.”
“That does sound odd.” An’gel frowned. “Were there other incidents?”
“There most certainly were.” Rosabelle sounded heated. “Food poisoning, not once, but twice.”
“You poor thing,” Dickce said, her sympathies aroused despite her previous skepticism. Perhaps there was more to this after all than simply Rosabelle’s constant need for attention. “Were you terribly ill?”
“I like to have died.” Rosa...
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