An exploding Mardi Gras float has got to be the strangest murder weapon scrappy sleuth Carmela Bertrand has ever encountered in this latest Scrapbooking Mystery from the New York Times best-selling author.
It's Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and scrapbook shop owner Carmela Bertrand is excited to be attending the Pluvius Parade along with her best friend, Ava. Carmela's ex-husband, Shamus, rides by the duo on his float at the head of the parade, when suddenly the revelry turns to disaster. Shamus' float crashes and explodes, and although Shamus escapes unhurt, a member of his krewe is killed.
Carmela and Ava plunge into an investigation of the krewe member's death, but as they dig deeper, it starts to look less like an accident and more like a murder...and Shamus seems less like a victim and more like a suspect.
Release date: October 2, 2018
Print pages: 320
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"Lookit!" Ava cried. "There's your butthead of an ex-husband riding up there on the King Neptune float."
Carmela Bertrand stood on tiptoes and turned ice chip-blue eyes toward the enormous, glittering Mardi Gras float that was steamrolling toward them, lit up like a Christmas tree against the dark faades of historic French Quarter buildings. And sure enough, there he was, grinning from ear to ear as he and two dozen krewe members tossed strands of golden beads into the hands of a screaming, frenzied crowd.
"Shamus," Carmela said, his name dripping from her lips like honeyed poison. Any follow-up comment was completely drowned out as fifty brass horns blared a collective note and lithe dancers twirling flaming candelabras high-stepped their way down Royal Street. It was Tuesday night, a full week before Fat Tuesday, and most of New Orleans was already caught in the manic grip of Mardi Gras. The city was cranked up, ready to rock, and Carmela Bertrand and her BFF Ava Gruiex were smack-dab in the center of the maelstrom. Dressed for action in tight jeans, tighter T-shirts, and multiple strands of colored beads looped around their necks, they clutched geaux cups frothing with Abita Beer.
"Wouldn't you know it, Shamus hitched a ride on the very first float in the Pluvius parade," Carmela shouted to Ava above the raucous noise of the crowd. She tipped her head and pushed back loose strands of her shaggy blond bob as she took in the spectacle. A dozen marching bands had already tromped past them, along with clanking knights on horseback, a clown contingent, and a flotilla of exotic convertibles that carried smiling, waving Pluvius krewe royalty wearing gaudy, bedazzled crowns and capes of white faux fur. Enough white faux fur to decorate a Santa's village for decades to come.
"Gotta get some of those gold beads," Ava said as she grabbed Carmela's arm and pulled her closer to the curb, closer to the action. "Throw me somethin', mister!" she shouted out. Ava was tall and stacked, with a saturnine face and masses of dark curly hair. Men either loved Ava or were frightened to death by her. She was vivacious bordering on brash and oozed raw sex appeal.
Carmela would've scoffed at the notion that she was sexy, too. But her appeal was in her quiet, contained, almost mischievous persona. She was smart as a whip, driven to be a successful businesswoman (though her craft shop was small and humble by most standards), and she could hold her own with men. Carmela wasn't averse to tossing back a bourbon and branch while hashing out politics and smoking an occasional cigar.
"What's the parade theme this year?" Ava asked.
"Spirits of the Sea," Carmela said. "The theme's always supposed to be a deep dark secret until they start rolling, but you know Shamus . . . can't keep a secret."
Shamus, Carmela's ex, was an indolent Southern boy who, when he wasn't out drinking or chasing younger women, worked at his family's Crescent City Bank. Work being a very loose and haphazard description for what Shamus actually accomplished.
"Spirits," Ava said. "I guess that explains why King Neptune is hoisting that ginormous jug of wine."
The float was built to represent an ancient seagoing galleon, complete with billowing sails, three decks piled one on top of the other, and a carved, barely decent mermaid figure on the prow. Pluvius krewe members hung off every railing and crossbeam, tossing beads and waving at the crowd. Fifty-one weeks of the year, these men were business moguls and staid society leaders. Their walk-in closets probably held a pair of Berluti shoes to match every one of their Zegna, Burberry, and Armani suits. Tonight, however, they were all robed in white satin and wore white, expressionless masks.
On the very top deck of the float, a rotund King Neptune figure was firmly ensconced on his golden throne. His gigantic motorized head lolled back and forth, his mouth gaped open, and his eyes fluttered and blazed yellow. Every few seconds, a surge of golden glitter pumped out of his trident and shot high into the dark night sky.
"What's old King Neptune made out of?" Ava asked Carmela. "You're the crafty one. Does it look like papier-mâché?"
"I think Jekyl repurposed an old King Arthur figure from three years ago," Carmela said. "Reworked the face, added the trident, and draped that necklace of fish and shells around him." Jekyl Hardy was a well-known float builder and one of Carmela's dearest friends.
"Whatever he did, it's impressive," Ava said as the float rolled ever closer to them. "It even looks as if Neptune's tipping that big jug forward to offer us a nice splash of vino." She suddenly pinched Carmela's arm. "Wait, is something wrong? It almost looks like the jug—and the float—is tipping over."
Carmela blinked as the enormous float shuddered and then slowly listed to one side. An obnoxious screeching sound, like steel wheels grinding against hot coals, rose up to pierce the air. Startled krewe members grasped for handholds on their now-unsteady perch as the float began to shimmy and shake even more.
Did the float blow a tire? Or worse? Carmela decided it had to be worse because the float was suddenly pogoing up and down, jouncing and bouncing its krewe like mad. Then the entire float began to tremble from stem to stern, its tall mast and billowing sails shaking violently.
"Dear Lord," Ava said as people all around them began to cry out in alarm.
A mounted police officer tried to make his way toward the malfunctioning float, his horse's hooves clattering harshly against pavement. But the horse, sensing imminent danger, snorted and reared up in protest, pawing wildly in the air. The officer leaned forward, tugging on the reins, trying to get his horse under control as the float continued to sway from side to side, each motion more drastic and violent than the last.
"That float's about to crash and burn!" Carmela yelled as the crowd began to back away. She glanced at the front of the float, where Shamus and a few other krewe members were hanging on for dear life. And no wonder. The float seemed to have lost all control over its direction. It was headed right into a throng of onlookers, rolling like some deadly Trojan horse as it listed badly, a ruptured ocean liner about to sink.
"Get back, get back!" a policeman yelped. And the frightened crowd did jump back. Sort of.
But not all the way. Because watching the big float pitch and quake was strangely and dangerously hypnotic. Like watching a train wreck. And how often did you see a big-assed Mardi Gras float completely out of control? Well . . . never.
But the show had just begun.
Just as the prow of the Neptune float hit the curb and bounced hard, an ominous rumble sounded from deep within, as if some horrible monster was about to make an appearance.
"That thing's going to blow," Carmela shouted as she tried desperately to pull a hypnotized Ava out of harm's way.
The sound built in terrifying waves, rolling across the crowd, almost taking people's breath away as it rattled shop windows and neon bar signs with all the ferocity of an F6 tornado. When the explosion finally came, it was enormous. A deafening blast that was enough to call out the dead.
Carmela felt her jaw literally drop as she stared at the very top of the float. King Neptune's head was spinning violently, like a child's top. Then, with a whomp that resonated deep within the pit of her stomach, Neptune's head blew off and a shimmering fountain of glitter spewed forth into the velvety dark night sky. It flew up, up, up, until the sky was ablaze with what looked like a million points of light. When the glitter had reached its ultimate trajectory, it began to sift downward, landing softly on the heads of the crowd.
The float let loose a final gut-wrenching belch and shiver, so violent it catapulted krewe members off their perches. Some somersaulted down harmlessly to lower decks, but a few were tossed off the float only to land—splat—on the pavement!
"Somebody call 911!" Carmela cried out. She knew men were injured and in desperate need of help.
"We just called," a man behind her yelled. "Ambulance is on its way."
"Is Shamus . . . ?" Carmela's eyes searched the float for him. Had he been shaken off, too? She felt her stomach wobble as she gazed at the men lying in the street. Oh dear Lord, are they hurt badly? Please don't let anyone be dead, she prayed.
But wait. Men were slowly picking themselves up. They were groaning, but they were alive. Thank goodness.
Then a pile of white satin stirred and Carmela recognized Shamus. Without thinking, she rushed over and threw her arms around him.
"Are you all right?" Carmela cried. Ava was right there next to her, helping pull Shamus to his feet.
"Whuh hoppen?" Shamus stammered. He had a wonky look on his face and his eyes didn't quite focus.
"Your float crashed," Ava told him.
"No," Shamus said in a loud pronouncement, as if he'd just been told the earth was flat. Then, "It crashed, really?" His left eye wandered to the far left, hesitated, then seemed to snap back.
"Are you okay?" Carmela asked. "Anything broken?"
"You don't look so good, buddy," Ava said. "Your eyes have gone all googly."
Shamus took one step on wobbly legs and said, "I don't feel so good."
"Well, don't toss your cookies on me," Carmela said. She glanced around, deciding they'd all been incredibly lucky. Yes, the float was ruined, but it could have been so much worse. Nobody in the crowd appeared to be hurt . . .
Then she saw one man, still crumpled on the ground, who wasn't moving a muscle. "Oh no," Carmela said, her voice catching in her throat. "We need to . . ."
Shamus limped over to the man who was still laying on the pavement, looking like a fallen ghost in his bunched-up white robes, his body twisted in a most unnatural way. "Hey," Shamus said, kneeling down, putting a hand on the man's shoulder, "Hey, guy."
"Maybe you shouldn't try to move him," Carmela said. Now she and Ava had gathered around the fallen man as well. "Maybe we should wait for the EMTs to arrive. Let them bring in a backboard or something."
"The least we could do is wipe that gold glitter off the back of his head," Ava said, trying to be helpful.
Carmela bent closer and stared at the man as the screams of multiple sirens rose above the din of the crowd. Something didn't look right to her. And as Shamus gently brushed glitter from the man, his features slowly came into focus.
"That's not the back of his head," Carmela cried out. "The glitter's smeared all over his face! Quick, we have to clear his airway before he's smothered to death!"
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