Sex Change: A Nina Bannister Mystery (The Nina Bannister Mysteries Book 6)

SEX CHANGE
:

(A Nina Bannister Mystery)

T’Gracie and Joe Reese

“Men are men; but Man is a woman.”

––Chesterton

Dedicated to the women in the

United States House of Representatives

PROLOGUE:
 
PORPHYRIA’S LOVER

It was his first night in the new apartment.

Apartment?

It was hardly an apartment; it was a hovel. They had rented it to him as a “garden apartment,” but of course there was no garden. There was only the sidewalk just beyond the window. He had to keep the window open, for otherwise there would have been no air at all; but this meant he could hear the sound of feet scuffling by on the sidewalk.

Scuffling.

A good word.

It was what rats did. And he was now little more than a rat.

He had once been a “literary man;” for that matter, he had once been a “man.”

Those days were over now, of course, because of the dreadful thing he had done.

But literature remained in his brain to taunt him.

“I am a spiteful man. I am a little man. I think my liver is diseased.”

The Underground Man.

And here he now found himself, underground.

Pipes bellowed around him when water from the tenements above coursed through them.

And otherwise…

...otherwise there was nothing to listen to, nothing to brighten the shadows, or make the two or three pieces of shabby and worn furniture more comforting.

This, this was what he had come to.

He continued to sit on the bed for a time, looking out of the window, watching the shoes rasp by.

Then he picked up the one book he had brought with him from his other life.

The page he needed was marked, and so he simply let the book fall open.

There was a candle burning on the desk by the bed, so he had just enough light to read.

Browning.

The poem was “Porphyria’s Lover,” in which a man of lower caste, jilted by his aristocratic lover, “searches for a thing to do,” when receiving her for a final visit. He then says:


I found

A thing to do, and all her hair

In one long yellow string I wound

Three times her little throat around,

And strangled her.

I propp’d her head up as before…

And all night long we have not stirr’d,

And yet God has not said a word!”

He read the poem several times, holding it close to the flickering orange flame, watching the smoke drift out through the window.

Then he took a knife from the drawer of the desk, carefully cut out the page on which the work appeared, and held the page in the candle flame until it blackened.

He let the charred ashes fall into a wastebasket at his feet.

He glanced at the luminous dial of a clock sitting in front of him.

Two o’clock in the morning.

And still people came and went outside, most of them leaving the bars scattered along the street, most of them, almost certainly, drunk.

He lay down on the bed and stared at the ceiling, waiting for God to speak to him.

For he was not like the murderer in Browning’s poem.

God
would
speak to him.

God
had
spoken to him!

Then he became aware of the voice within him, calling him.

Unfortunately, it was not God.

CHAPTER 1:
 
MANGER SCENE

The atmosphere in the town hall was electric. It was the same central meeting chamber it had always been—gray desks pockmarked with the small curved designs made by nervous fingernails on a malleable surface—and it had neither grown in dimensions nor increased in dramatic potential.

No, it was simply a town hall.

Bigger and more modern than some, perhaps, because Bay St. Lucy had spent a part of its recent influx in funds in building it from scratch, based on the most modern of designs.

But there was very little anyone could do when designing a civic building.

It was a place where boring things had to be done, by people who were bored doing them.
  

And yet this night was different.

TV monitors had been put up on walls where none had been the day before.

Coffee patrols had been organized, and small brown cups kept moving up and down lines of people like water in bucket brigades.

And as for the people, they spoke in hushed tones.

As did Nina Bannister.

“When was the last report?” she was asking.

Coffee moving by, coffee moving by…

“Eight thirty five,” came the answer, from any one of four or five distracted and haggard citizens who might have given it.

“Look! New report coming!”

All six of the large TV screens that encircled the room went dark simultaneously, then relit anew, in order to show an attractive blonde woman standing in front of the Mississippi State House.
   

“Hello; I’m Glenda Barker reporting from Jackson. Polls have been closed now across the state for a little over two hours, and we’re getting some ideas now about the way this special election is shaping up.”

“How are you doing, Nina?”

Macy Cox.

“I’m all right, Macy. I’m just ready for it to be over, one way or another.”

“I understand. We all do.”

“May I have your attention, please!”

No one had noticed that the door at the room’s main entrance had opened.

But it had.

No one had noticed that Edie Towler had walked into it.

But she had.

No one had noticed that she now held before her a clip board much like the one Macy was carrying around.

But she did.

And now, with that quiet confidence and understated authority that Edie always seemed to exude, she was speaking:

“You don’t have to listen to the broadcast going on up there. That’s just NBC going over things you already know. We know something, though, that they don’t. It just came in here; they won’t get it for a few minutes. We always get updates first. So I can tell you this now.”

The room fell silent.

Almost.

There was the whirring of ventilation systems in the ceiling, the scuffle of feet as people positioned themselves so as to get a better look at Edie, the rattle rattle slurp slurp of the entire coffee apparatus now in operation, its Styrofoam and balsa wood rattle-patter and ever present background noise.

Other than that, though, silence, as Edie said:

“Rankin, Jefferson, and Peterson Counties. Now too close to call.”

The room caught its breath.

They were all there, all the denizens of Bay St. Lucy.

Alanna Delafosse, seated beneath the window, a street light shining through the half-closed blinds and making her face a caramel glow; John Giusti talking on a cell phone, nodding, whispering, imploring somebody to do something and do it fast, because this was it, and time was dwindling; John’s wife Helen, late of the Broadway stage, seated a few feet away from her husband, her face fixed on a computer screen; Jackson Bennett, all six feet three of him, immaculately gray-suited, standing still as a statue, only his lips moving as he totaled figures known to no one but himself, and visualized consequences and concerns which, Nina knew as the widow of a lawyer, were only visible to those who knew
The Law
in its capital letter sense.

Even Tom Broussard, who did nothing civil, who was not civil—even Tom was seated in a far corner rattling on a computer keyboard, either writing press releases or grisly murder stories.

And there, bringing him a cup of something, ostensibly coffee, more probably bourbon or some unknown brew even stronger, was his wife of not quite a year––Penelope Royale.

Penelope was now four months pregnant.

But tonight she was working like everyone else.

Worrying like everyone else.

Nina tried to make sense of what Edie had just said.

Rankin, Jefferson, and Peterson Counties.

Too close to call.

Incredible.

It led her back to a scene in February.

When in February, the first week?
           

Yes, of course, because that was, and had been for ages, the week of the Swordfish Jubilee, held in Bay St. Lucy in the middle of winter, when the weather was too cold in most other states to have a fair or any other type of outdoor celebration.

The Jubilee featured amazing opportunities for deep sea fishing.

But it also featured the closest thing the city had to a county fair, with midway, rides, and everything else.

One of the best county fairs in the state of Mississippi, everybody said so.

Nina loved it, and had always loved it, from the days in childhood when she rode the wildest rides again and again and again and tried to knock the weighted bottles off their little three-legged stools and failed, of course, but kept trying because the tickets were only fifty cents for five throws and there were, high on a shelf above the bottles themselves, THOSE MARVELOUS STUFFED ANIMALS!

Now she went for the food.

But what food!

Booth after booth:
 
Fletchers’ Original Corny Dogs; Sam Jackson’s Funnel Cakes; Hot Dogs Galore!; Italian Ice Treats; Fried Onion Rings; Bratwurst; Southern Fried Chicken; Pizza by the Slice—and of course, for Bay St. Lucy was a fishing village––fish fish fish of all kinds, fried or broiled or blackened or whole or half or in parts or in little bits or still live, swimming around in the tank, for you to knock on the head and take home and do with as you pleased.

Octopus.

Fried octopus rings!

…and on and on.

There was wrestling, judging, guitar playing, craft booths, photography booths, weight guessing, kiss buying,…

…all of these things as usual.

This year had been different, though.

Something else had happened.

She had arrived at ten o’clock in the morning, the way she always did; had paid her three dollar admission fee (but gotten her wrist stamped so she could come back in); had eaten herself silly and slightly sick; had Vespa’d home to Furl and bed; had napped the afternoon away; had revitalized herself around sundown and then returned to a much different setting, all glowing in the dark now, every midway attraction a bit louder and more garish, the whole fair shimmering in the twilight, vaguely wicked, its morning smile having turned, with the surrounding darkness, into something more like a leer.

This did not matter to her in the least. The only thing that mattered was that she had become, thank heaven, once again hungry, and could make the rounds of all the booths again.

She had done about half of this and was wandering aimlessly by the ‘judging’ buildings, making a horrid mess of a blooming onion, most of which had bloomed down onto her sweatshirt and some of which had gotten, impossibly, into her hair, when a barker stepped out of the rabbit exhibition and beckoned to her:

“Hey, Miss! Yeah, you! C’mere!”

The barker smiled, stepped forward, repeated himself, grinned, and finally was transformed by the light of a nearby Ferris Wheel into Jackson Bennett.

Jackson was the biggest thing at the fair, and, though not the most intimidating, still ranked pretty high on the scary list, and could still have frightened silly the same linebackers he had run over a couple of decades ago while playing ball at LSU.

“Yeah, you! Yeah, you!”

“Jackson!”

Nina smiled and allowed herself to be taken in by whatever shell game was about to be played.

Because, whatever it was going to be, Jackson always seemed to be there at the start of it.

And now, here he was again, inviting her into a rabbit barn.

A rabbit barn.

What could that lead to?

But she greeted him, shook his mammoth hand with her puppet-like one (she always felt like a puppet in his presence), and allowed herself to be led farther into the building.

Soon there were hutches of rabbits on either side of her.

Brown rabbits, black rabbits, reddish rabbits, and white rabbits.

She felt like Alice in Wonderland.

And so on they went, talking of this and that, how wonderful it all was, had she eaten enough, was she planning to stay until it closed, what did she think of the smells here in the livestock barns, and, yes, livestock were livestock weren’t they and wasn’t it warm on the midway this year especially for February and there was indeed some talk of rain, even tonight, but, no, everyone knew it didn’t rain at night in February in Mississippi and now there were sheep beside them instead of rabbits and now there were goats and the long, long structure continued to stretch before them until…

…until––there––sitting on a couple of hay bales, straw beside them, 4-H members hopping over them and avoiding them if possible…

…was a group plotting some outrage.

It just had that feel to it.

Alanna Delafosse.

How in God’s name had anyone gotten Alanna Delafosse into a livestock barn?

But there she was, Fifth Avenue Alanna, decked out for
Vogue
magazine in a huge-brimmed black straw hat and a white dress with red stars that somehow had remained white when nothing else within half a mile of it was, except buckets and buckets and buckets of milk.

Edie Towler.

Town District Attorney and soul of importance and common sense.

Edie’s outfit blended into the straw around it, as her outfits always seemed to blend into the earth, and the natural order of things.

John Giusti.

John, who was the town veterinarian, and the only person in the group who seemed to belong in a livestock barn.

Its only true scientist, and its most brilliant high school graduate ever.

These people.

Along with Macy Cox.

And, finally, sitting on a bale of hay, legs crossed, eyes fixed on Jackson, Paul Cox.

Paul and Macy, one and one half years wed now, still blissful.

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