Sneak Peek! Haunted Housewives of Allister Alabama
If you’ve picked up a copy of Specter Spectacular, you’ve already been treated to a sneak peek of Chapter One of The Haunted Housewives of Allister, Alabama available October 30 as a trade paperback and out tomorrow as an early-release ebook. Or you can take a gander here at the opening pages of this ”cozy mystery full of zany characters, haunted paintings, and a big dose of Southern humor” that’s been called “a fast-paced, fun, compulsively readable romp” and “a unique, must-have addition to your to-be-read stack!”
The Haunted Housewives of Allister, Alabama
by Susan Abel Sullivan
My name is Cleopatra Kilgore Tidwell. As a middle class Southern gal born and raised in small town Alabama, I was brought up with certain social rules. You don’t wear white after Labor Day, you don’t decorate your lawn with pink flamingos, and you most certainly don’t hang black velvet paintings in your home.
So when my husband Bertram and I were recruited to help his mother pare down her Elvis collection and pack up the rest of her stuff for her upcoming move to a senior’s condo, I was a bit judgmental about all the tacky Elvis doo-dads.
Okay, I was a good bit judgmental. Don’t get me wrong. Out of the three mothers-in-law I’ve had, Georgia is hands down my favorite. But really? A black velvet painting of Elvis Presley? That was supposedly haunted. She might as well have hung a dogs-playing-poker print smack dab in the middle of her living room. It was just not done in Allister unless you were a redneck or trailer trash.
And Georgia was neither, bless her heart.
My mother, Martha Jane, always says, “Hindsight is wiser.” I didn’t know at the time that the “haunted” Velvet Elvis would lead to murder, mayhem and a media circus. Or that my whole worldview on the subject of psychics, angels, the occult, and disembodied spirits would be turned on its head. Yep, I was in for a rude awakening. Uh huh.
My gorgeous mother-in-law, who at sixty-two could still turn younger men’s heads, plucked a framed 8×10 photograph from the end table beside her couch. Her spacious ranch home was in complete disarray from the three of us sorting through a lifetime of belongings for her upcoming move to a smaller abode. But Georgia herself was the epitome of neatness, her blonde hair done up in a 60s flip, her navy slacks neatly pressed, and not a smudge of dirt or dust on her hot pink knit top.
“Oh, Bertram, I absolutely must take this photo to the condo with me.”
“Now, Mama, you know you can’t take everything with you.”
Bertram stroked his beard, a clear sign he was thinking up some alternative for his mother. He’d opted against his usual suburban uniform of khakis and polo shirt and was wearing jeans and a Jimmy Buffet t-shirt touting the song, “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere.”
“How about you trade something in your gonna-keep pile with that photograph?” He rose to his full six foot four height, his knees cracking with the effort. He pointed to the spot on the golden shag carpet where we’d gathered a growing pile of Elvis memorabilia. “Like this Velvet Elvis?”
He hoisted up a two by three foot acrylic painting of Elvis preserved for all posterity on black velvet and bordered with a gold frame that would have been right at home in a Liberace museum. This was the often parodied Elvis: white rhinestone-spangled jumpsuit, chiffon scarf, dark, longish hair in the early seventies style, thick mutton-chop sideburns, and a hint of a jowl. For an odd moment, I thought I heard Elvis saying, “Priscilla,” in my head. And then it was gone.
“But that’s the painting I bought last month when I went to Graceland,” Georgia said. “A little fella was sellin’ ‘em by the roadside. Said it was haunted. I paid a thousand dollars for it.”
Oh, Lordy, Martha Jane would be fit to be tied if she heard this. A thousand dollars for something only a bonafide Elvis fanatic would want and hideously tacky, to boot.
Bertram frowned. “A thousand dollars, Mama?” He was still holding the painting, staring at Elvis’s one eye as if he could silently discern its dubious secrets. I was just relieved the trashy thing didn’t belong to us.
“Well, yes, hon. If this was the real deal, I wanted to be the next person to witness it. I wasn’t about to let another Elvis collector get their hands on it.” She nodded at me as if I were a kindred spirit.
“How is it haunted?” I said. I’m tellin’ ya, some people will believe anything.
“Well, the little fella said it sang ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ at night after he and his family had all gone to sleep. A pitiful soul. He reminded me of those men you see by the interstate holding up the will-work-for-food signs.”
Bertram set the painting down on the thick carpet again, propping it against the wall, but one hand lingered along the upper edge of the gilt frame. “If they were all asleep, how’d they know it sang anything?”
“Because he videotaped it. And he also told me it showed Elvis leavin’ the painting.”
I didn’t doubt for one moment that this was all a gimmick to dupe the gullible, but it could be entertaining to see someone’s amateur efforts at pulling a con. “Did he give you the tape?”
“No, darlin’,” Georgia shook her head sadly. “Said it burned up in a trailer fire.”
It was on the tip of my tongue to say, “Yep, sure it did.” But I kept my mouth closed. Martha Jane used to say, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Not that that ever stopped her.
Bertram couldn’t seem to keep his hands off the painting’s gold frame. “Which one is more important to you, Mama? The signed photograph or the haunted painting?”
Georgia sighed. “I guess I’ll keep the photograph. I’d truly hoped I’d get to commune with Elvis’s dearly departed spirit, but nothing’s happened so far. Maybe someone else’ll have better luck with it.”
Bertram hefted the thing, his biceps bulging. “Then I’ll just set it over here in the gotta-go pile.”
For a medium-sized painting, it seemed to weigh a lot.
Georgia hugged the photograph to her bosom. “Cleo, honey. Set down what you’re doin’ and come take a look at this.”
I was happy to oblige. We’d been at it for awhile and I was ready for a break. I had no idea one person could accumulate so much stuff, most of it Elvis related.
She passed me the old black and white photograph. It was from the early sixties. Georgia, Elvis Presley, and a lanky, blond mystery man posed together in front of a swimming pool surrounded by lush, tropical plants. Georgia was in the middle, the guys on either side of her, their arms draped across one another. The three of them looked pretty chummy together. Georgia reminded me of Connie Stevens and Sandra Dee with a little Doris Day thrown in, the all-American girl. Elvis was young and still beautiful.
The King’s scrawl jittered across the bottom half of the photograph.
We certainly had fun in Acapulco.
I pointed to the mystery man. “Who’s this?”
“Oh, that’s Lee Munford. He was part of Elvis’s Hollywood entourage. He and Elvis would stay up late talking about the occult and life after death.”
Good to know. Like that bit of trivia would ever come in handy. Uh huh.
Georgia was not to be deterred from trying to take it all with her.
“Bertram, hon, it’s so hard to choose which things to keep and which to let go. Are you sure you two can’t store some of these in that roomy Victorian Cleo just inherited?” She gestured grandly like Vanna White on Wheel of Fortune, indicating enough Elvis memorabilia to stock a Graceland gift shop.
Say no, say no, say no, I thought, mentally crossing my fingers. My great-aunt Trudy, who left us her house a few months ago when she died at the ripe old age of ninety-nine, would roll over in her grave if she knew we might use it to store Elvis crap. Elvis had been a vulgar upstart in her way of thinking.
“Mama, we’ve been over that. Cleo and I have nothing against the King, but we’re just not into him like you are.”
Whew! Actually, we weren’t into him at all. I could rattle off a laundry list of Elvis aversions that Bertram had from growing up with an Elvis nut for a mother. Trust me, it was enough to put anyone off Elvis for life.
Georgia lovingly wrapped the picture in white paper. “Cleo, did I ever tell you that Elvis dyed his hair? He was actually a natural blond. Or that his middle name was Aaron?”
“Why yes, Georgia,” I said as sweetly as I could, “I believe you did.” Several times.
For a moment she had a startled expression. I’d probably derailed her entire thought process. But she recovered quickly and said, “So how are you two love birds celebrating your third anniversary?”
Bertram and I exchanged knowing glances, favoring each other with a little smile. I shrugged and said, “We’re spending a quiet evening home alone. Nothing fancy.”
Nothing fancy! We were only going to celebrate the Super Bowl of Romance in our new home. Married three years and we still had the heat of newlyweds.
“Well, that’s sweet, hon. I wish you both a lifetime of happiness.”
Champagne buzzed through me like the soft whirr of cicadas on a hot summer’s night. Our third wedding anniversary had been absolutely exquisite up to this point. A candlelight dinner for two in the formal dining room of our new Victorian home. Kansas City steaks, grilled to perfection. Cherries Jubilee and not a single scorch mark on the antique lace tablecloth. Bertram looking absolutely yummy in a charcoal gray suit. And me all gussied up in a slinky red dress, my blonde hair curled and pinned up off my neck. We’d broken out the good china, silver, and crystal for the occasion.
Bertram had burned a CD of romantic songs. As he cleared the dessert dishes from the table, “The Way You Look Tonight” segued to Elvis Presley’s version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” He must have gotten that one from Georgia, since we didn’t own any Elvis music. But it was a romantic song. What sort of gift would Bertram give me this year? He’d presented me with a box of Godiva chocolates and the entire set of Maude Adams mysteries on our first anniversary. And tickets to see Jimmy Buffet at the Fox in Atlanta last year. I was aquiver with anticipation.
And then he toted out the Velvet Elvis.
“Happy Anniversary, Cleo.”
A laugh bubbled out of me. Oh, what a good one. We’d remember this anniversary for years to come.
“No, really, Cleo,” Bertram said, his brown eyes troubled. “Happy Anniversary.”
And then it hit me. This was my anniversary gift. I stared at 70s Elvis in his white jumpsuit and mutton-chop sideburns, painted so, um … artistically … on black velvet, trying to think of something—anything—to say. The only words I could come up with were: Oh my God. If I had to make a list of gifts I’d least like to receive, a velvet painting of any kind would be at the top, right above tickets to Muppets on Ice or maybe a ceramic gnome for the front yard. It wasn’t so much the hideousness of it as the shock of the unexpected. It was if I’d been expecting to go to dinner at a five-star restaurant only to be taken to McDonald’s for a Happy Meal. And if it had been a gag gift, I could have played along, but this was our wedding anniversary.
The silence was stretching out to an uncomfortable span, accentuated by the ticking of the grandfather clock in the adjacent parlor. I had to say something, and I had to say it now. But I didn’t want to hurt Bertram’s feelings, not on our special night.
“It’s, uh … Bertram, I don’t know what to say.”
Bertram propped it against the back of one of the gold upholstered dining room chairs, and we admired the thing together. How cozy.
“After we helped Mama move,” he said, his arm draped around my shoulder, “I just knew I had to get it. It had you written all over it.”
“It did?” I was trying so hard to be careful with what I said.
“Yeah. Like neon lights. And you can tell all your friends about it being haunted.”
“I can?” I didn’t want to tell my friends about it at all. I didn’t want to tell anyone about it. I think I’d die from embarrassment.
“Sure. You’ll be the talk of the town. Who else can say they own a genuine, haunted painting of the King?”
“No one, but you.” Bertram gave me a squeeze. Even with high heels on, the top of my head barely reached his chin.
I could hear it now. I’d be the joke around town. Oh, that Cleo Tidwell, married three times. Her husband gave her a Velvet Elvis on their anniversary. Isn’t that the tackiest thing you ever heard?And then they’d chortle like a pack of hyenas.
But I looked up into my husband’s handsome face at that moment, and my bafflement and concern got shoved to the back burner. His brown eyes were so full of love.
So I said, “Thank you, Bertram,” standing on tiptoe and throwing my arms around his neck. And even then, he had to lean down to kiss me, his beard tickling my lips. But it was a five-alarm kiss that made my toes—and other parts—tingle. Bertram scooped me up Rhett Butler-style and carried me up the grand staircase to our boudoir, where we scattered a couple of cats off the bed.
The Velvet Elvis couldn’t have been farther from my mind.
When I came downstairs for breakfast the next morning, all seemed right with the world. I had on my favorite L.L. Bean navy walking shorts, a white scooped-neck knit top, and a pair of navy Keds. My unruly hair was pulled back into a ponytail with a gross grain hairband. My make-up was Cover Girl perfect. And Bertram and I had had a spectacular night in the bedroom.
But what should I find in the formal dining room but my husband of three years balancing on one of Great-aunt Trudy’s antique chairs before the fireplace, a hammer cocked in one hand and a nail poised against the cabbage rose wallpaper? And right before he was supposed to head out to work.
Oh, I could just kill him! Those delicate chairs weren’t made for a six foot four, two hundred and twenty pound man to stand on them.
“What are you doing?” I said, each word in staccato.
He jerked around to look at me, and I heard a distinctive crack from the chair.
“I know the perfect place to hang your painting,” he said. “It came to me this morning in the shower.”
“In the dining room? Of a Victorian house? Wouldn’t it be better in … that back room upstairs?”
“No,” Bertram sang out all cheery, “you’ll want this prominently displayed so you can show it off.”
And then he pounded the nail home.
Oh. Oh. Oh. I couldn’t bear to watch. This so went against the social rules I was raised with.
Bertram set the hammer on the mantle and actually scampered across the gleaming hard wood floor to where we’d left the Velvet Elvis the night before. Then he practically traipsed back to the scene of the crime with it. I winced as he stepped upon the antique chair again.
“Bertram, couldn’t you have used a step ladder? That chair can’t hold your weight. It’s fifty years old, for crying out loud.”
“No time,” he sang out, totally unfazed. He hung the painting, leveled it, and then stepped down to admire his handiwork. “Perfect.”
“I also got a great idea for a new half-time show this morning. I don’t know why I never thought of it before.” Bertram was the Director of Bands for Allister State University and he was much more proficient with a musical instrument than he was with handyman tools.
He left the chair and hammer where they were and disappeared in the direction of the butler’s pantry. “We’ll do a tribute to Elvis. The alumni will love it.”
The things that make you go: hmm. If it hadn’t been for the Velvet Elvis, I wouldn’t have thought twice about a show dedicated to Elvis.
Bertram breezed out of the pantry into the big open foyer, a Dr. Pepper in one hand and a granola bar in the other. He broke stride only long enough to kiss me on the forehead. “That was some night last night, Cleo. See you at lunch.”
As soon as his convertible backed out of the drive, I whisked the step ladder out of the laundry room and climbed up in front of the velvet-offense-against-good-taste. The King still sang silently in profile, rhinestones glittering, microphone held high. I listened, hands poised on either side of the gold frame. Nothing. Nothing but house noises, like the hum of the fridge in the kitchen, and the ticking of the grandfather clock, and a board creaking upstairs from our fat cat Cosmo.
“Darlin’, you’re comin’ down,” I told the painting.
It didn’t answer. Good thing, too, or I probably would have fallen off the step ladder and sprained something.
I grasped the frame to lift it off the wall, but couldn’t get it to budge. Geez, maybe I should have eaten my Wheaties. I tried again. Ergh, the thing was too heavy to move. What was it made out of? Gilded lead?
Maybe I could use my powers of persuasion to convince Bertram to relocate it tonight. In the meantime, I could live with it on the wall. It wasn’t like anyone was coming over today, at least not for a social call.
I had just snapped the step ladder closed when the doorbell did its dull ding. Goodness, who could it be so early in the morning?
The who was Marty Millbrook, my second ex-husband. His color scheme would have made the sisters of Phi Mu squeal with joy. Green polo shirt, pink and green plaid shorts, navy belt, and pink slip-on tennis shoes. How many times had I told him that redheads shouldn’t wear pink?
“Well, hey, Cleo. I’m glad I caught you at home.”
I pulled him inside and gave him a big hug. It’s no secret that I still adore Marty. But he’s like a second sister … or a gay brother … or hell, I don’t know. What I do know is we survived our divorce to become great friends.
“You’re up and at ‘em early this morning.”
“Just trying to catch that ole worm.” His face lit up with a boyish grin.
Our house is a combination of Victorian and Craftsman design. At one time, the big open arch between the larger parlor and the dining room probably sported a thick velvet drape hung on a rod. The drape could be tied off for roominess or left closed for privacy. But the drape was long gone, and anyone standing at my front door had a clear view of a large portion of the dining room.
Marty now leaned way out to his left, his expression incredulous. “Cleo, that Velvet Elvis in your dining room has got to go. I thought you had better taste than that.”
“I do.” I gave him the scoop.
“Straight men.” He shook his head in sympathy. “But you are a lucky girl in all other ways. That Bertram is quite a catch.”
“Yes, isn’t he?” I almost purred thinking about all those ways.
“All right, sweetie,” Marty said, pulling a folded up piece of paper from his shorts pocket. “I’ll get to the point. The historical society is having a historic home tour to raise money to buy and restore the old Parnell place on Main Street. We’re calling it a Haunted History of Allister. Of course, none of the homes are haunted, but we’re modeling it after the one in New Orleans. Naturally, I thought of you and this house.”
“Naturally. So, when is it? On Halloween?”
“Nope. Tuesday, the twenty-first. From five to nine p.m. So, what do you say, Cleo? Can I count on you and Bertram?”
“Somebody else dropped out, didn’t they?”
“You got me, Cleo. But your house is great. Come on, do it for the historical society. Pretty please?”
Oh, no. Not the begging. Not the puppy-dog eyes. Marty knew how to penetrate my defenses. It was the only thing of mine he could penetrate, bless his gay little heart.
“All right. We’ll do it.”
“Great! I knew I could count on you, Cleo.” He unfolded the paper in his hand and passed it to me. “Fill out this bio and fax it to me by tomorrow. I need to upload it onto our website ASAP.”
I sneaked a peek at the questionnaire.
Who originally owned your home?
Are there any ghost stories associated with your house? Any special possessions significant to the house?
Marty was saying, “You can decorate for Halloween or not. Whatever you’re comfortable doing. But, sugar, I recommend you ditch the Velvet Elvis. That’s what I call truly scary.”
Posted on October 15, 2012, in Haunted October, new, urban fantasy, World Weaver Press and tagged Haunted Housewives of Allister Alabama, Haunted October, new, Susan Abel Sullivan, urban fantasy, World Weaver Press. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.