Finding Southern Comfort

By: Barbara Lohr

Chapter 1

Harper Kirkpatrick shoved her Catwoman mask into place and rang the doorbell. Hard to look casual with a whip under her arm. A late evening breeze ruffled the Spanish moss overhead. Didn’t matter. She was sweating big time under the black spandex costume. Savannah in February was a lot warmer than Chicago.

An older woman answered the door. “Yes?”

“I'm the entertainment for the party.”

She stood aside. “Right this way, please. I’m Connie.”

The heels of Harper’s black boots clicked on the white marble floor as she followed Connie inside. Pink tulips drooped in a crystal vase on a long hall table. Harper sure hoped they were fake. Holding her breath, she scurried past.

Bypassing a parlor stuffed with antiques, Connie led her around the wide staircase where etchings of the Savannah squares hung above the wainscoting. She’d studied those squares as a design student and knew them well. A wide archway opened into a library and beyond that she glimpsed a dimly lit dining room with a long shiny table.

Pretty snazzy, as her mom would say. These sprawling southern mansions felt so elegant compared to the solid brick houses in Oak Park, the Chicago suburb where Harper grew up. Still, why was this house so quiet? Where were the birthday party decorations, the cake and the kids? The back of her neck prickled. In the three months she’d worked for Party Perfect, this was a first. Something wasn’t right.

The note from Rizzo was tucked under the spandex so she couldn’t check.

Good grief, had she goofed up again?

“Here you go, miss.” Connie yanked open a door under the staircase. Raucous male laughter shot up a narrow stairway.

“Thanks, Connie.” Harper reached for the handrail. These suckers looked steep. The door closed behind her, and she was left in the darkness. Maybe the children had brought their parents? She started down. Her wired tail flailed the steps, almost keeping time to the music.

“Keep 'em in line,” Rizzo had told her with one of his sleazy grins.

Sure. Right. She’d thought he was talking about rambunctious first graders, not the howling group below.

A guy waited at the foot of the stairs. The low lighting glinted off blond hair when he glanced at his Rolex. “You’re late.”

“Sorry, I had trouble finding the—”

“I’m Cameron Bennett, and you’re thirty minutes late.”

Her cheeks stung. “I’m Harper Kirkpatrick and I said I was sorry.” She’d had trouble with the zippers. Probably not the time to share. His blue eyes iced her. Stumbling on the last step, Harper pitched forward.

“Good God.” He broke her fall with both hands.

“Sorry. So sorry.” Cripes. She pushed away from a chest that had seen a gym or two.

“You okay?” Cameron Bennett looked more annoyed than worried.

“I’m fine. It’s dark in here, in case you hadn’t noticed.” Squaring her shoulders, she peered into the room. “Where’re the kids?”

“What kids?”

A chill shot down her spine. Guys with flushed faces lounged in chairs around a few tables. The low-ceilinged room held a hint of Cuban cigars smoked here a long time ago. Her lungs squeezed tight. She had rules and Rizzo had broken them.

But her rent was way past overdue.

“Nothing. Forget it.” Her arrival time of ten o’clock didn’t seem too crazy when Rizzo gave her the details. She’d worked a sleepover birthday party two weeks earlier for a bunch of cute second graders. She handed Baby Blues the CD Rizzo had given her. “My music.”

“Good, because you’re late.”

“You said that already.”

His lips pressed into a thin line. Anxiety chattered in her stomach.

“Cameron, ole buddy! Now, don’t keep that sweet thang all to yourself,” called out a guy who looked like a former lineman. He made a feeble attempt to stand before collapsing back in the leather club chair. They all roared. Felt like she’d stumbled into a locker room.

“Doesn’t look like a sweet thing to me,” said a guy with a pencil moustache. Her stomach flopped over.

“Gentleman—and we are gentlemen, in case some of you may have forgotten—y’all be on your best behavior now.” Baby Blues pushed her forward.

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