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       Big Easy Murder (The Peyton Clark Series Book 3), p.1

           H. P. Mallory
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Big Easy Murder (The Peyton Clark Series Book 3)


  BIG EASY MURDER

  HP Mallory

  Copyright ©2016 by HP Mallory

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. Please do not participate in or encourage the piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

  Acknowledgements

  To my mother, thank you for your support and for always being the first to read my books.

  To my son, Finn, for being the sweetest little boy on the planet.

  To Len: Thank you for giving me the moon and stars... April.

  To my editor, Teri, at editingfairy.com: Thank you for a great job, as always.

  ALSO BY HP MALLORY:

  THE JOLIE WILKINS SERIES:

  Fire Burn and Cauldron Bubble

  Toil and Trouble

  Be Witched (Novella)

  Witchful Thinking

  The Witch Is Back

  Something Witchy This Way Comes

  THE DULCIE O’NEIL SERIES:

  To Kill A Warlock

  A Tale Of Two Goblins

  Great Hexpectations

  Wuthering Frights

  Malice In Wonderland

  For Whom The Spell Tolls

  Eleven Snipers Sniping (Novella)

  A Midsummer Night’s Scream

  THE LILY HARPER SERIES:

  Better Off Dead

  The Underground City

  To Hell And Back

  Persephone

  THE PEYTON CLARK SERIES:

  Ghouls Rush In

  Once Haunted, Twice Shy

  Big Easy Murder (Novella)

  THE BRYN AND SINJIN SERIES:

  Sinjin

  The Scent

  CONTENTS

  CHAPTER ONE

  CHAPTER TWO

  CHAPTER THREE

  CHAPTER FOUR

  CHAPTER FIVE

  CHAPTER SIX

  CHAPTER SEVEN

  CHAPTER EIGHT

  ONE

  It was my first Christmas in New Orleans and, more specifically, my first one in my new house on Prytania Street. After deciding to quit an unhappy marriage, I’d packed my things, left Los Angeles, and headed south. And now I was the proud owner of a nineteenth-century, three-story, five-thousand-square-foot mansion. So what if it were in dire need of a facelift? Actually, it needed a lot more than that—it was in dire need of a whole body lift.

  I was still in the process of completing that full body lift. So far, only the kitchen, the downstairs bedroom, and the bathroom were fully remodeled. But that didn’t stop me from busting out my Christmas guns! And those guns? Boy, were they big ones! Yes, I’d gone a little bit overboard when it came to my holiday decorations. Now the furniture-free, as well as drywall-free, living room boasted faux pine garlands winding up the balustrades on either side of the staircase, as well as fluffy wreaths in every window. Life-size figures of Santa and Mrs. Claus stood off to one side of the double front doors, with eight elves standing on the other side. And let’s not forget the Christmas village! I set that up underneath the bay windows on the far side of the room. At this particular moment, I was tackling a behemoth known as my fourteen-foot Christmas tree! It fully occupied the center of the room, intoning a festive air, completely adorned in white, silver and gold. And its crowning glory? Nothing less than a diamond-studded (fake, of course) star to top off the whole thing.

  And that, right there, was the problem.

  The tree was fourteen feet tall and I wasn’t. Even at the top of my trusty ladder, I was still a few feet too short.

  “Hmm,” I grumbled from the fifth step of the ladder. I glanced down at the star in my hand and then back up to the top of the tree.

  Do not contemplate it, ma minette, Drake’s voice sounded inside my head. You will most assuredly fall and injure yourself. May I remind you, I am still in the unenviable position of also feeling your physical pain?

  Hearing someone’s disembodied voice inside your head might seem like reason enough to fall off your ladder, but I didn’t. Why? Because that inner voice didn’t surprise me. I’ve been hosting the ghost of Drake Montague, a twentieth-century French Creole policeman, for some time now; so let’s just say I was used to it.

  What if I wedged the ladder a little bit closer to the tree? And then stood on the top step? I bet I could reach the treetop, I responded to Drake’s comment in thought. Eyeing the top of the tree with even more determination, I added: And I can brace myself against the fireplace to keep my balance. Sure, it was a great plan.

  Mon Dieu! That sounds like no more than a fool’s errand which will only result in our being admitted to Charity Hospital! Drake protested in his usual, histrionic falsetto voice that normally amused me. Right now, however, he was sounding more like the voice of doom. Given how determined I was to see my Christmas preparations completed, the voice of doom most certainly DID NOT fit into my plans.

  Just watch, I thought as I started coming back down the ladder. Once I had both of my feet on the floor, I grabbed the ladder and forcibly shoved it as far against the tree as I could, causing a few ornaments to swing radically. They briefly swayed back and forth, but I didn’t think they were going to fall off, so I breathed a sweet sigh of relief. As I faced the ladder again, I rocked it back and forth, trying to determine how safe it was to climb. It wasn’t exactly stable. One of the legs was on top of the rug while the other three were in contact with the hardwood floor. Well, make that two legs that were resting on the floor … the third was helplessly airborne.

  Mon chaton, Drake continued in his worried-mom tone, his French accent even thicker.

  If you don’t take risks, you don’t see rewards, I fired back smartly. Starting back up the ladder, I was a bit more tentative as I ascended to the top. Once I reached the second to the last step, I stabilized myself by leaning against the marble fireplace. Then taking a deep breath, I stepped onto the top rung of the ladder, ignoring the warning label that said not to use it as a step. I figured the warning was more of a suggestion than a hard-and-fast rule. It didn’t matter anyway; I was still too short to reach the top of the tree.

  “Dammit!” I cried out loud, letting my exasperation get the best of me.

  You made a valiant effort, Drake tried to console me.

  Eyeing the treetop one more time, I wondered if maybe I could just pull the tree closer by bending the top of it down, and plopping the star on top?

  Non, Drake responded as soon as that thought crossed my mind. You must accept defeat, ma minette, he declared, using his pet name for me, which means, “my pussycat.”

  Even though I hated to admit it, Drake was right. There was no way, short of sprouting a set of wings and flying, that I could reach the top of the tree.

  You could always invest in another taller ladder, Drake suggested.

  Yes, but that would mean a trip to the DIY store and yadda-yadda-yadda, I replied with a hefty shake of my head. All I want right now is immediate gratification.

  Drake didn’t answer, probably because he wanted me to pay stricter attention as I worked my way down the ladder and still clutched the glittery star in my left hand. Once my feet touched the ground again, I closed my eyes. I wanted to have this conversation with Drake in as close to real time as our bizarre situation allowed.

  By closing my eyes and allowing him, I handed Drake the proverbial reins of my body, and he assumed control. The dreamscape that existed behind my eyelids was purely Drake’s doing. He controlled whatever visuals unfolded before me. Now with my eyes clos
ed, I was still in my living room, only as it appeared back in the year 1919. That was when Drake was still alive and he owned the house.

  “Given your penchant for recklessness, I am surprised you have survived this long,” he told me. He was standing before the bank of floor-to-ceiling picture windows, which flanked both sides of the fireplace, dressed in lounge pants and nothing else, which I found slightly obnoxious. It meant I had to make one hell of an attempt to keep my eyes from wandering over his exquisitely sculpted upper body. Yes, Drake was very handsome. Well, probably more fitting to say he was droolworthy. But he was also very much dead.

  “Oh, puleeze,” I said as I waved him away with a dismissive hand. “You used to be a police officer! You must have dealt with way more dangerous situations than a silly girl on a stepladder.”

  Cocking his head to the side, he nodded as if agreeing with that point, but remained silent. He fixed his pervasive, chocolate gaze on me. Drake still looked as if he were right around my age, which would be in his early thirties. He was tall too, maybe six-one or six-two. His thick, dark hair was long on top and short on the sides, as was the fashion in the 1920s. Actually, it was still pretty fashionable, even by today’s standards. His strong, square jaw was covered in a five-o’clock shadow that nicely complemented his tan complexion.

  “I do believe your overabundance of Christmas novelties are swallowing the entirety of my living room,” he complained as he sipped from a tumbler of whiskey. I hadn’t realized he’d been holding it until he put it to his lips and took a very lengthy and purposeful gulp.

  “Are you referring to my house?” I inquired from where I sat in one of his Bergere oak chairs that were remarkably comfortable. Finely upholstered in a cornflower blue, they matched the shade of the curtains exactly. Even though Drake’s career was as a police officer, he came from old money. That was what enabled him to afford such a lavish home, which would have, otherwise, been impossible to finance on a lawman’s salary.

  “Shall we compromise and say our house?” he asked with a boyish smirk. I just nodded as I feigned interest in the loophole of my jeans. I hated to admit, even to myself, that looking at him was really turning me on.

  Sure, this was once Drake’s house, but that was a long time ago. Shortly after I became the owner of it, I discovered I wasn’t alone. Drake had been haunting the house for nearly one hundred years. The only reason he now possessed me, for lack of a better description, was because I allowed him the temporary use of my body.

  Yes, I know that sounds totally, insanely odd. Few people would jump at the opportunity to become possessed; and it certainly does have its drawbacks. But at the time, it seemed like a good idea, because Drake wasn’t the only entity still lingering in my house. Unfortunately for me, however, this other entity wasn’t quite as harmless, or innocuous, as Drake. The other one was a demon that adamantly intended to possess my soul. Drake, in his attempts to protect me, nearly got swallowed up by the demonic force. The only way I could save him was by offering him the safe haven of my corporeal body. After summoning the aid of a voodoo priestess and a warlock, I managed to shelter Drake’s spirit inside my body.

  At the sound of a rapid knock on my door, I opened my eyes. The dreamscape of my living room immediately shattered, no longer appearing as it did so long ago. Feeling the weight of something in my hand, I glanced down. I was still holding the star that was supposed to go on the treetop. Not bothering to put it down, since I didn’t know who was at the door and the points on the star were sharp enough that it seemed an adequate way of defending myself, should the need arise, I cautiously approached the front door.

  Who do you suppose is calling? Drake demanded from inside my head.

  No clue, I responded as I held the Christmas star up like it was a ninja star. I peered through the peephole and immediately recognized the incredibly tall, barrel-chested, golden-haired Adonis that was standing out front. An Adonis who currently went by the label of “Peyton Clark’s boyfriend.”

  Oh, by the way, I’m Peyton Clark. Ha! A potentially uncomfortable moment diverted …

  Ah, le barbare, Drake sighed. It was no surprise that Ryan Kelly, a.k.a. “the barbarian,” was no favorite of Drake’s. Drake had admitted having amorous feelings toward me, and Ryan was my current beau. Ryan’s feelings towards Drake were quite comparable. It seemed there wasn’t enough room on Prytania Street for two men with huge egos, even if one of them were deceased.

  I pulled open the door and my lips parted open into a wide smile as soon as Ryan’s lopsided, dimpled grin beamed at me. Without wasting any time, he threw his bear arms around me and lifted me off my feet. That wasn’t easy either! At five-ten, I’m not exactly petite. Before I could greet him, his lips were planted on mine, causing my heart to immediately start fluttering as I kissed him back.

  Ma minette! Drake fired up from inside of me, sounding outraged. How often must I remind you? S’il vous plait! Please shield me from these homosexual encounters!

  Oh, sorry, I answered, feeling slightly embarrassed. I complied immediately by shutting Drake out. All I had to do was simply forbid him from experiencing what I did in my mind. That was the best part of our odd arrangement—I was still ultimately in charge of my own body. If I didn’t want Drake to experience everything I did, I could always exclude him.

  So, back to Mr. Kelly. Ryan is in a word: scrumptious. He’s six foot six and built like a football player, or a water buffalo. His vast, broad shoulders taper down to a very defined, narrow waist. And his strong, well-shaped legs seem to go on for miles. His hair is the color of honey, almost the same shade as his amber eyes. But his crooked smile always gets me the most. Or maybe it’s his deep, Southern accent.

  “Peyton, Peyton, Peyton,” he whispered in quick succession. Pulling away, he smiled down at me, and his dimples sank in full effect.

  “McDreamy, McDreamy, McDreamy,” I answered with a little giggle that immediately embarrassed me because I was sure I was about as corny as a sixteen-year-old girl with her first crush.

  “McDreamy?” Ryan asked as he shook his head and frowned, apparently not too fond of the appellation. “Sounds like something you order at McDonald’s.”

  “I think that’s the point,” I said with a quick smile while opening the door and welcoming him inside.

  Ryan owned his own construction business and was in charge of all the renovations on my house. Renovations which had been quiet lately, owing to the stress and drama in my life over the last few weeks. Remember that demonic entity I mentioned earlier? Well, unfortunately, it wasn’t as simple as calling up the neighborhood ghost exterminators and asking them to remove the poltergeist from my house. Instead, the demon, which I later discovered was the infamous Axeman of New Orleans, had plans of its own.

  The Axeman of New Orleans had been a serial killer who had terrified New Orleans just before the 1920s. He would bludgeon his victims to death with an axe, thus earning his moniker. The case became an annal of history when the Axeman sent a letter to the Times-Picayune newspaper, purporting himself to be a demon “from the hottest hell.” Maybe owing to the fact that the Axeman was never caught, many of the people of New Orleans believe he was just that—a true demon. And judging by what I‘d personally experienced, I would have to agree with them.

  “I came to check on you, Pey,” Ryan said. Studying me with concerned eyes, he explained, “I wanted to make sure you were still … you know, recoverin’ from everything you went through.”

  I sighed because the “everything went through” was pretty big, to say the least. When the demonic Axeman returned in my time, I took it upon myself to protect New Orleans from another episode of his ceaseless wrath. In order to do that, I had to travel back in time, to the year 1919 (with the help of voodoo magic) to defeat the Axeman the first time he’d struck New Orleans. Luckily, I’d been successful.

  The not-so-lucky part about the whole situation, however, was that I’d had to acquire the aid of a less-than-noble voodoo priestess
named Guarda. She was a relative of the famed Marie Laveau and, as such, magic seemed to run in her veins. But deceit and treachery also tainted her blood. I was still waiting to see what implications would be involved from seeking Guarda’s consol. It wasn’t a subject that caused me much comfort, so, consequently, I stopped thinking about it.

  “I’m good,” I said as I nodded quickly and then offered Ryan what I hoped was a radiant smile.

  He nodded in response, and his eyes lingered on me for another few seconds before he turned to face the living room. Sighing and shaking his head, I watched a smile curl his lips. “It looks like the Hallmark store just exploded in here.”

  “Hey!” I replied as I playfully swatted his cut, rounded bicep. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  “Just what I said,” he answered, taking a few more steps into the room before circling around as he glanced at all of my decorations. “Well, does all this crap mean we won’t be finishing your living room any time soon?”

  “Yes! And all this crap is festive!” I railed back at him. Feigning offense, I dramatically crossed my arms against my chest. “And if you feel so inclined, you can go ahead and start working on the second floor,” I finished.

  “I might just have to do that,” he answered with a smile before poking me in the belly with his index finger. “But first, I need to ask you a favor.”

  “Oh, great,” I said as I rolled my eyes and shook my head, “here it comes!”

  He chuckled, and that great, deep laugh of his brought another smile to my face. “I’m not sure this will be something you are even capable of doin’, but I thought I’d give it a try anyway.”

  “Okay, my curiosity is piqued,” I said as I studied him for a few more seconds.

  “Word is startin’ to spread about your ability,” he started.

  “My ability?” I repeated, shaking my head to let him know I wasn’t following.

  “Yeah … your ability to see and communicate with spirits,” he corrected himself. Then he cleared his throat and added, “And when I say word’s startin’ to spread, I mean, Trina’s been runnin’ her fat mouth off to anyone who’ll listen.”

 
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