Genetics were a heck of a thing to Scarlet Holmes’s way of thinking. The little girl hopped out of the black sedan, wobbling slightly with the weight of her backpack on her shoulders. More than ninety years spanned between their ages, but it was like looking in a mirror. At least, the mirror of her childhood. The driver closed the door behind the small child and then gave Scarlet a staunchly disapproving look before rounding the car and getting back behind the wheel. Charles was an old busybody, and she knew he’d report his findings to his employer. Not that she was doing anything wrong. An old lady couldn’t even sit on her front porch swing and drink lemonade anymore without someone running off to tattle. Scarlet narrowed her eyes as the little girl kept her head down and took in a heaving sigh before starting what looked like a death march down the long drive. “Ada Mae Dempsey,” Scarlet called out, her voice echoing like a drill sergeant. “Light a fire under those feet. I could die before you get here.” Ada picked up the pace, but she didn’t lift her head. She kicked at invisible rocks and looked so pitiful Scarlet had to stifle a laugh. And then the girl finally made her way up the steps of the big white house that had been in her family for generations.
“Well, look what the cat dragged in,” Scarlet said, trying not to let her worry show. She scooted her way to the edge of the swing so her thick-soled white sneakers touched the wooden slats of the porch, and she waited until the swing was moving forward before hopping off. The skirt of her bright yellow sundress clung to the back of her legs. Whiskey Bayou in August was like sitting in a bowl of hot soup. As old as she was, if she wasn’t careful, her skin would fall off the bone like a soup chicken. “As much as I like looking at the top of your head,” Scarlet said, “a Holmes always faces the music. We hold our chins up high, even if you’ve got five or six of them like my great-aunt Gertie.” Ada let her backpack slip off her shoulders and it hit the porch with a thud, and then she tightened her little fists and lifted her chin defiantly. Scarlet’s lips twitched. Ada Mae was a chip off the old block all right.
Lordy, she was a mess. Her dark pigtails were whompyjawed, her white uniform shirt was missing a button, her knees were skinned, and one of her argyle socks drooped to her ankle. She looked pitiful. “Hmmph,” Scarlet said. “It looks like school hasn’t changed much since I was there.” “They had school when you were a kid?” Ada asked, wide eyed. “They sure did,” she said. “But I looked way worse than you. I went to an all-girls school. Girls really know how to pull hair.
” Ada might have had her father’s piercing blue eyes, but she was a Holmes through and through. Ada rubbed at her scalp and grinned, the single dimple in her cheek identical to the one in Scarlet’s. “Yeah, but that stuff you taught me came in real handy. Paris Wheeler’s thumb bent back really far, and she screamed really loud.” “Paris Wheeler is a second grader,” Scarlet said, surprised. “Since when did they start putting kindergarten and second grade on the playground together?” Ada’s grin disappeared and she got that stubborn set to her chin that said she’d already shared too much. “I smell cookies.” “Verna made them fresh to celebrate your first day of school. Better go get one before I eat them all. Girls that fight with second graders maybe don’t deserve a lot of cookies.
” Ada took a minute to measure her mark, and her lip quivered as her eyes started to fill. “You know that’s wasted on me,” Scarlet said. “If you’re going to sell it you’ve got to get rid of the mad in your eyes.” “Works on everybody else,” Ada grumbled under her breath and headed toward the little table next to the swing. She daintily selected a chocolate-chip cookie, and Scarlet poured her a cup of lemonade from the glass pitcher. She waited until Ada climbed up into the swing and spread a napkin across her lap before Scarlet handed her the cup. Then she took the seat next to her and started the swing rocking. “How come tears work on everyone but you?” Ada asked. “Because everyone else is a bunch of suckers. I got tortured by Nazis.
Takes a lot more than a quivering lip to break me.” Ada let out a long-suffering sigh and took another bite of cookie, and then she looked at it as if it wasn’t doing the job, making Scarlet’s lips twitch again. “Mama always says when days are really bad it’s best to go straight to the ice cream.” “Who do you think taught your mama that? Have a cookie now, and we’ll have ice cream for dessert after dinner. You’ve got to learn to pace yourself.” “Hmm,” Ada said, and pressed her lips together. Scarlet grabbed a couple more cookies for herself and settled back, listening to the swing creak and the fans whir lazily overhead. “So,” Scarlet said. “How was school? Learn anything new?” “Not really,” Ada said, letting out a very adult sigh. “I knew it all already.
I don’t think school is going to work out. We should look for alternatives.” Scarlet’s brows rose in surprise. “That would probably surprise your parents when they get back from their trip. I’m not sure there’s a lot of alternatives for five-year-olds in this area. Back in my day you’d be working in the fields or sewing until your little fingers bled.” “I’m more management material,” Ada said. Scarlet barked out a laugh and then she nodded at Ada solemnly, giving her a conspirator’s wink. “It’s lonely at the top. My parents didn’t much know what to do with me either.
” “I don’t think Mama and Daddy are going to be too happy with me,” Ada said. “I told Ms. Perkins not to bother calling them because they’re trying to have a getaway before the baby comes, but I could tell she wasn’t listening. The old busybody.” Scarlet stifled a snort as Ada mimicked her thoughts about the driver earlier, and then she tried to make her face stern. “That’s not a very respectful thing to say about your teacher.” “No, I suppose not,” Ada said heaving another sigh. “But the way I see it, a school like Primrose Academy is never going to help me relate to the common man. I need to be in the trenches.” “Well, from the looks of it, you spent the day in the trenches.
Are you going to tell me what happened, or am I going to get a phone call from someone later?” Scarlet asked. If possible, Ada’s lips tightened even more, and she got that stubborn line between her eyes that Scarlet had seen in her own reflection on more than one occasion. “It was just a difference of political opinion,” Ada said. “I tried to handle it with my words like you said, but Paris Wheeler took offense at being told she had as much empty space between her ears as her daddy for backing that bill in the senate. I guess she didn’t get the memo that we’re supposed to settle disputes with our words because before I could say anything else she had me by the hair and was sitting on my chest. She’s put on a pound or two over the summer.” “I’m guessing you told her that too,” Scarlet asked, not sure whether to scold her or ask what happened next. “It wasn’t one of my finer moments,” Ada said. “She just got me so mad talking about Daddy that way. She said he was any empty-headed dunderhead.
Scarlet nodded in agreement. “It’s important to defend your family and the people you love. It’s how you go about defending them that’s important. You’ve got to keep a cool head in times like these.” “Did you always keep a cool head when defending your family?” Ada asked. “Lord no,” Scarlet said. “And it got me into some real fixes. But I never really had to defend my family growing up. You should be glad you have parents and people in your life who love you like they do. My daddy couldn’t wait to boot me out the door.
” “Granny says it’s because you couldn’t keep your legs together,” Ada said, and then her face squinched up with a quizzical expression. “What does that mean?” “It means your granny needs to stop drinking the cooking sherry from the cupboard and mind her own beeswax,” Scarlet said, eyes narrowed. “So did your daddy boot you out?” Ada asked. “Daddy would never do that to me. He says me and Mama are his favorite people in the whole world.” “No, he’d never do that,” Scarlet agreed. “We Holmeses are made of sturdy stock, and we don’t pay much mind to the rules, but my daddy got a wild hair one day and decided to make our name more respectable. But the bayou isn’t known for being respectable. My daddy could fight and drink with the best of them, but he had a real keen business mind.” Ada nodded her head with the wisdom of someone far past her years.
“He had a partner named James Walker, and during prohibition they used the solitude of the bayou to hide their distillery.” “What’s prohibition?” Ada asked. “Is it scandalous?” “It sure was,” Scarlet said. “The government told everyone that alcohol was bad and banned anyone from making or selling it.” “I bet Granny hated that,” Ada said, pursing her lips. Scarlet’s lips twitched. “I know Granny and I look like we’re the same age, but she wasn’t born then.” “Does that mean that your daddy broke the law?” “Oh, yes,” Scarlet said. “He and James made whiskey because the bayou had all the ingredients needed. And then they sold it all over Georgia and eventually to a bunch of other states.
They made a fortune. My daddy even got shot once.” “Wow,” Ada said, her eyes wide. “Did he die?” “Nope,” she said. “Holmeses are too mean to die. He just kept doing what he was doing.” “What about your mama? What did she do?” Scarlet cleared her throat. Addison would wring her neck if she told Ada too much. Scarlet’s mother had enjoyed the time her husband was away by spending his money and making sure his side of the bed stayed warm with anyone who caught her fancy. “My mama was what you might call a socialite,” Scarlet finally said.
“She was beautiful, and she was real good at making people feel right at home. You see that trellis where all the roses are blooming?” Ada leaned forward so she could get a better view. “I see it.” “There used to be a drainpipe there, and one time Daddy came home early and caught someone trying to climb up to the second floor.” “That’s scary,” Ada said. “Was he a robber?” “You could say that,” Scarlet said. “My daddy shot him right in the back. And then he ripped the drainpipe out so no one could climb up there again. We had to have the whole house repainted. Mama and Daddy never really got along after that, and she died a couple of years later.
No one ever knew what happened to her. They found her body in the marsh and that was that. I was the oldest, so it was up to me to take care of my two brothers.” “You have brothers?” Ada asked. “I used to,” Scarlet said. “One died of scarlet fever and the other died in the war.” “That’s sad,” Ada said, biting her bottom lip. “So why’d you get shipped off if your daddy needed you to take care of your brothers?” she asked, a little too insightfully. Scarlet sighed. She never thought she’d be spending her last days in the same house she’d been born in, but she’d made peace with her life over the last few years and it seemed fitting.
And if, from time to time, moments of bitterness and memories of rejection snuck up on her as she roamed her childhood home, then she squashed them like bugs and moved on about her day. Besides, she’d made something of herself, and in hindsight, it had been the best thing for her. There weren’t a lot of chances back in those days to get out of Whiskey Bayou. “I guess he shipped me off because I reminded him too much of my mama,” Scarlet finally said. “I was barely seventeen, and in those days, a lot of girls were already married and having babies. But I had an independent spirit, and I had good brains. That’s why you should go back to kindergarten. You’ve got good brains too.” “I’ll consider it,” Ada said. “I feel better now that I’ve had cookies and had some time to reflect on it.
” “Emotions sometimes get the better of us,” Scarlet agreed. “We Holmes women are real passionate. If I’d have been a boy, Daddy would have brought me right into the family business. I’d have made a good man. You see, after prohibition ended, he partnered with James to open a legitimate business, but he also had other business interests. He loaned money to people when they had great ideas, and then he helped them get started and took part of their profits. He made even more money doing that than selling whiskey. I did all the books for him, and I could add numbers in my head faster than anybody.” Scarlet didn’t bother to mention that she’d skimmed a little off the top for her trouble since Daddy never bothered to pay her. “I had already been working at the bank, so Daddy used me as a contact point for a lot of the businessmen coming and going out of Whiskey Bayou.
I met some real characters. I even met a bank robber once.” “That doesn’t sound like a good reason to boot you out to me,” Ada said. Scarlet cleared her throat and felt the heat in her cheeks. “Well, there were extenuating circumstances. James Walker was a very handsome and charming man, and I guess I fancied myself in love with him. He was almost thirty years older than I was, but he was just like a movie star. Everyone does foolish things when they’re in love.” “I know,” Ada said primly. “I watched The Bachelor with you the other night.
Disgraceful. You didn’t act like those women, did you?” “Not quite that bad,” Scarlet said. “But James wined and dined me in secret so my father wouldn’t find out.” Or his wife, she added silently. “But my father had a sixth sense about these things and he and James got into a horrible fight. By the time the dust had cleared, they’d split the business and I was on the next boat to France.” “Were you scared?” Ada asked, worry in her eyes. “A little bit,” Scarlet admitted. “But it was exciting too. I’ve always been of the mind that you can’t dwell on the bad things in life because that just keeps you tethered to the past.
Know what I mean?” “Not really,” Ada said, kicking her Mary Janes back and forth. “But I trust you.” “That’s a relief,” Scarlet said. “Did you get kicked out of Paris too?” Ada asked. “No, they loved me in Paris. It’s a different culture. And they were not so uptight as the people in a small town tend to be. For me, it was a place to start over. Though the timing could have been better. I’d barely gotten off the boat before the Nazis occupied Marseille.
That was a real humdinger. I’d hardly unpacked my bags before I had to kill a man.” Ada gasped and sat up straight in the swing. “Is that true? Granny says you say that a lot. She says you like to embellish.” “Granny is full of helpful information, isn’t she?” Scarlet asked. “But it’s true. In fact, I killed him with this very knife.” Scarlet dug into the pocket of her sundress and pulled out a small sheath knife. Ada covered her mouth with her hands dramatically.
“This was my father’s,” Scarlet said. “It was the only thing he gave me when I left home.” “Does it still have blood on it?” she asked. “I cleaned it real good,” Scarlet assured her. “A little bleach takes care of a lot of evidence. Something to remember.” Ada nodded. “Who’d you kill?” “Well, that’s a little more complicated,” she said, pulling the knife from the worn leather sheath. The blade was old, but just as sharp and capable as it had been the day she’d gotten it. “It’s probably best if I start from the beginning…”