ow can we go to the governor's mansion if it no longer exists?” Mavis asked Sophie, as the Citation X gently lifted off the runway at LAX. “I read about it on the Internet this morning, when I was checking my Web site.” Mavis's line of funeral attire, Good Mourning, had blossomed almost overnight since its inception, but she continued to monitor her Web site for each individual order received. Now more than ever, she lived on the Internet.
Sophie rolled her chestnut eyes upward, showing only the milky-colored whites. “It still exists; just more of a tourist attraction these days. Ronald Reagan was the last governor who lived there. The
stays at the Sterling Hotel, which is where we will be staying for the next few days or however long it takes to assist the first lady of California with her nightmares.” A slight smile lifting the edge of her full lips, Sophie mimicked the instantly recognizable accent for which the famous former actor turned governor was so well known.
“Stop being so damn dramatic. You may be a drama queen, but you're not an actress,” Toots called out from the seat in front of Sophie and Mavis.
“I didn't say I was,” Sophie tossed back.
“Stop!” Ida intervened. “I don't want to hear any smart comments today. I've about had it listening to the two of you squabble.”
Laughter bubbled throughout the private jet.
When the four women had boarded the luxury jet, all of them agreed that California's governor flew in style. The cabin was decked out in creamy leather reclining seats, solid cherry cabinetry, and all the latest gadgets, including an Apple iPad2 equipped with high-speed Internet, and built-in telephonesâjust in case the governor had to make a call and was unable to move about the plane.
Theresa “Toots” Amelia Loudenberry, Sophie Manchester, Ida McGullicutty, and Mavis Hanover, the last three being Toots's daughter Abby's godmothers, were en route to Sacramento, the state capital. Sophie, in her newfound celebrity, was slated to perform her magic, said
consisting of holding a sÃ©ance for the Peabody- and Emmy-award-winning first lady. She had begun to be plagued with nightmares about her famous uncle, John F. Kennedy, the thirty-fifth president of the United States, who was assassinated when she was eight years old. When she'd heard of Sophie's success in abolishing ghosts and other
worldly beings, she'd personally called to ask for her assistance.
“Oh hush, Ida! If I wanted your opinion, I'd ask.” Sophie smirked. “And I really, really do not.”
There was a long-standing war of sorts between Sophie and Ida. Though neither would ever voluntarily admit it, if pressured, both would confess to loving the other. It was just that they didn't
“Now now, girls, let's not fuss. We've got a long flight ahead of us, and I, for one, want to relax before we're introduced to California's first couple. I don't want to appear haggard,” Toots explained.
Mavis, the most upbeat and positive of the group, said softly, “Oh, Toots dear, you could never look haggard! I believe you're the most gorgeous woman I know.”
Toots smiled at Mavis. “You are too kind, but thank you anyway.”
Ida muttered something decidedly unkind.
As usual, Sophie and Toots ignored her when she mouthed off.
“Hey, this flight might not be as long as you think. Listen to this.” Sophie held up the brochure she had removed from her seat pocket. “The Citation X can fly through a half dozen time zones before refueling, and it has a Rolls-Royce engine. Whew! This is some aircraft.”
Ida spoke up. “That
good news. The less time I'll have to listen to you three run your filthy mouths, the happier I'll be.”
Sophie raised her hand above her head so Ida could see her middle finger standing proud and tall. “And it says the bathroom is marble.”
Coco, Mavis's spoiled female Chihuahua, growled from her royal seat, aka Mavis's lap. “Ida, I believe you've upset Coco. She knows full well that I don't say nasty things the way the rest of you do.” Mavis grinned, before adding, “Or at least not nearly as often.”
It was hard to imagine the woman Mavis had been just two short years ago. A retired English teacher and widow for seventeen years, she'd lived in a little clapboard house near the ocean in Maine before Toots had e-mailed her and invited her to Charleston, South Carolina, Toots's hometown. She'd been a heart attack waiting to happen when Toots rescued her, and, yes, that was exactly what Toots had done, rescued her. If she hadn't, Mavis would probably be six feet under that very moment. Guided by Toots and a personal trainer, Mavis lost over one hundred pounds and exercised daily as though her life depended on it, which it likely did.
Ida, a native New Yorker and a high-society snob, had been a complete and total nutcase. Recently widowed when Toots invited her to come to Charleston, the elegant former photographer suffered with OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and a debilitating fixation on germs. Thomas, her spouse of more than thirty years, was thought to have died from the bacterium E coli found in a tainted piece of meat Ida had purchased from her favorite butcher shop.
Circumstances being what they were, Ida's psychological disorder had caused her to become a total shut-in. Her world of Clorox and sanitizing had quickly ended when Toots sent her to a famous doctor in California who specialized in treating her disorder. Not only had she been cured of her compulsion in a matter of weeks, but she became romantically involved with her savior, who turned out to be no doctor at all but an imposter. He'd almost bilked Ida out of three million dollars to boot. To see her now, minus her cleaning kit, was a true miracle.
Sophie, also a native New Yorker, an RN and a former pediatric nurse, had been recently widowed as well. Walter, her abusive alcoholic husband, died from cirrhosis of the liver. No big surprise there. Planning ahead and looking forward to the day he died, Sophie had taken out a five-million-dollar life insurance policy on him before it was too late and was now quite comfortable.
Toots, an expert at planning funeralsâor
as she liked to think of themâhad a great deal of practice over the years, and helped Sophie arrange a quick
for Walter. Toots sang an off-key “
,” they said their Hail Marys, baked Walter's remains, then spent the rest of the day shopping before jetting back to Los Angeles, where Toots had fulfilled a secret lifelong dream when she purchased
a tabloid newspaper where her daughter, Abby, was working as a reporter.
Two years later Abby, now editor in chief of the tabloid, still had no clue her mother was the real power behind LAT Enterprise, the corporation that owned the paper. Abby seemed content to accept her new boss's preference for communicationâe-mail and FedExâso until Toots had a darn good reason, she had no intention of revealing her own involvement as the corporate owner of
Knowing she'd have to stay in close contact with her daughter, Toots purchased a beautiful three-story hillside minimansion in Malibu. It had been inhabited by a former pop star, whose idea of decorating was hot pink and purple. One of the guest bathrooms actually had a mirror in the shape of a guitar, and blue rhinestones on the baseboards. Toots guessed it was a sad tribute to the King himself, dearly departed Elvis.
Prior to the pop star, the house had belonged to Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. Toots, along with her dear friends, had moved into the Malibu beach house while it was being remodeled. It was during the remodeling that she experienced a paranormal phenomenon in her own bedroom.
She remembered that night as being the most frightening of her life.
Awakened by a pounding heart and an eerie chill in the horrid purple bedroom she'd referred to as a hooker haven, and paralyzed by a fear unlike anything she'd ever experienced, Toots had been unable to move from her bed. Nextâshe still had difficulties believing thisâwhat seemed to be four clouds, in an eerie, translucent shade of blue, clustered around her bed. Inside the cloudlike puffs were faces. Yes, she knew how insane it sounded, but she'd seen it with her own two eyes and it was what it was. Afterward, she remembered thinking she could've had hallucinations from a bad case of indigestion or, perish the thought, even a brain tumor. She had read somewhere about tumors on the brain causing pressure that gave rise to hallucinations. But it had been nothing like that at all.
Recalling the faces, she realized they were familiar to her, but in her traumatized state, she was unable to identify them. In a matter of seconds, the foglike clouds disappeared. Scared and shaken, she'd told Sophie what she'd experienced. Having had a lifelong interest in the paranormal, Sophie hadn't been shocked when Toots told her what had happened. Of course, now they knew the remodeling in the bedroom had stirred up the spirits of famous movie moguls Aaron Spelling and Bing Crosby, who in life had an ongoing feud over a piece of land. Sophie had suggested a sÃ©ance. Successful in her attempts to contact and communicate with the dead, Sophie had become a celebrity in the world of paranormal events and ghosts. So there they were, flying in a private jet on their way to the governor's mansion to assist California's first lady with her recurring nightmares.
Toots reclined in the luxurious leather seat, content with her life and that of Abby's three godmothers. Since the girls had temporarily relocated to California and South Carolinaâtemporarily being two yearsâtheir lives as senior citizens had been one big roller-coaster ride. A few rough spots along the way, but thrilling nonetheless.
Toots glanced at each of her friends, who were really more like sisters. Abby's three godmothers were quiet, each lost in her own private world. They had been friends for more than fifty years. She treasured her friendship with each woman. Each was unique and individual in her own right. Toots could only hope they'd have another fifty years together.
The copilot's deep voice came over the intercom, announcing they were about to begin their descent into Sacramento International Airport. “Ladies, I'm going to have to ask you all to buckle up. The ceiling is down to two hundred feet with some fog and light rain. We'll be making an ILS approach, so it could get bumpy. Please secure any open containers and that little dog.”
Ida, an uncomfortable flier on a good day, turned ten shades of white. “What does that mean? I knew I should've taken a commercial flight. I hate these small planes.”
“Private jets have the same stupid-ass rules as the commercial airlines,” Sophie said as she adjusted her seat belt.
Mavis put Coco in her carrier and placed it beneath the seat. The little pooch growled, then went into a series of earsplitting barks before settling down. “She just hates that crate, but we have to follow the rules. They're for our own protection.” Mavis darted a glance at Sophie.
“Oh crap, Mavis, I know that. I just like to complain. At least we didn't have to go through security and get felt off. I bet Ida wouldn't mind going through security, would you?” Sophie said, trying to distract Ida.
When Ida didn't respond to her teasing, Sophie continued. “Ida, clear something up for me. Is it âfelt off' or âfelt up'? I've heard both, but I'm not sure which one to use.”
Toots cackled, Mavis smiled, and Ida answered Sophie, her voice trembling with fear. “Either. Personally, I like to think of it as getting âfelt off.' I'm surprised at you, Sophie, with your infinite well of useless information, that you would even ask such a question.” To her credit, Ida didn't react to Sophie's tormenting her as she would have a year ago. She was learning to be a true Southern smart-ass.
“It certainly has been in the news a lot lately, those perverts trying to cop a feel. People have no respect for one another anymore,” Toots said disgustedly.
Suddenly, the plane lurched to the left.
Ida shrieked. “What's happening?”
Unlike a commercial jet, the private plane did not have a closed cockpit. Ida strained to see into the cockpit and gasped when she saw nothing but clouds rushing past the windscreen. “Oh my God, how are they going to land this plane? The windshield is covered with clouds! I should have stayed home.” Ida bowed from the waist, closed her eyes, and held on tight.
Toots observed Ida, whose normally composed face was etched with fear, fingernails digging into the expensive leather armrest. Toots knew full well there was nothing to fear. One of her eight husbands, she couldn't remember exactly which one in the sequence, had been a pilot. To take Ida's mind off her fear, she said, “I remember doing this many times; it really isn't as dangerous as you think. See all those little gauges?” She pointed to the instrument panel, which was clearly visible from their seats. “One of those little round things has two needles on it. One goes up and down, and the other moves left and right. As the pilot approaches the airport, the needles will begin to intersect each other. Keeping them centeredâit's somewhat similar to the crosshairs on the scope of a rifleâwill align the plane directly on the center of the runway at exactly the right height and allow the pilot to make a normal landing even though he can't see.”