Laura Childs

Photo Finished

The second book in the Scrapbooking Mysteries series, 2004

This book is dedicated to my husand, Dr. Robert Poor.


Heartfelt thank-yous to mystery great Mary Higgins Clark; my wonderful agent, Sam Pinkus; my sister, Jennie, who is always first reader and critic; my mother, who devours books and asks for more (I can’t write that fast-no one can!); good friend and cheerleader Jim Smith; all the tea drinkers and scrapbookers who have been so wildly enthusiastic over this series; all the marvelous writers and editors who have been so kind in their reviews; all the hard-working booksellers who put my books on their shelves and into the hands of readers; and to all the enthusiastic readers who enjoy both the Scrapbook Mysteries and the Tea Shop Mysteries. I continue writing because of you!

Chapter 1

THE last thing Carmela Bertrand wanted was a cocoa-almond body scrub that would leave her smelling like a Zagnut bar. But that was what Jade Ella Hayward was trying to push on her. Tonight of all nights. When Carmela had twenty scrapbook fanatics crammed into her tiny little shop in the French Quarter, primed and pumped and ready for an all-night crop.

“No, thanks, Jade Ella, really,” protested Carmela. As it did for so many women who lived in New Orleans, the high humidity seemed to keep Carmela’s skin hydrated and free of tiny lines. Or maybe it was just her youth or the sparkling blend of DNA her parents had gifted her with.

“Look,” said Jade Ella, batting dramatic, kohl-rimmed eyes, “you helped me out by taking those great photos. See…” She shoved a newly printed flyer at Carmela. “I even used one on the cover of my new brochure.”

“That was nothing,” protested Carmela. “A happy accident.”

Jade Ella held up a finger adorned by a sparkling citrine that was roughly the size of a Buick. “And Spa Diva’s just opened, so now’s the time to come and enjoy a little complimentary pampering. Before the crowds hit. Before we become a huge success.”

Spa Diva was the newest, ritziest day spa in New Orleans and Jade Ella Hayward its major investor. A pantheon to women’s desire for the latest in beauty, hair treatments, and pampering, Spa Diva was located in a rehabbed shotgun house on the upper stretch of Magazine Street, where dozens of decorators’ studios and art galleries were clustered.

Carmela’s blue eyes crinkled politely as she quickly ran a hand through her mane of tawny blond hair. She had nothing against spas; she’d just never had much use for them. Hadn’t had time for them since she’d opened Memory Mine, her little scrapbooking shop, over a year earlier.

But the very insistent Jade Ella was the estranged wife of Bartholomew Hayward, the proprietor of Menagerie Antiques, which sat right next door to Carmela’s shop. Bartholomew Hayward did a land-office business selling eighteenth-century oil paintings and antique furniture. And he had always struck Carmela as the sort of fellow it might be best to tread lightly around.

So Carmela accepted the complimentary spa certificates and thanked Jade Ella profusely. It was the best way she could think of to get Jade Ella on her way and herself back to the gaggle of customers who were clamoring for attention.

“Why don’t you and your friend, Ava, come in next Saturday,” shrilled Jade Ella as she zipped her marabou-trimmed ivory satin jacket and slung her jewel- encrusted Fendi bag over her shoulder. Waggling her fingers at Carmela, Jade Ella disappeared out the door and into the Saturday night throng. “Tootles,” she sang over her shoulder.

Gazing out her front window at her own slice of the French Quarter, Carmela experienced the slight contact high that always seemed to reverberate in the two- hundred-year-old neighborhood also known as the Vieux Carre.

She knew that right now, over on Bourbon Street, raucous music clubs and strip bars were huckstering in visitors like mad, even as house bands banged out funky, eardrumbusting tunes.

A few blocks over, on Royal Street, the atmosphere would be slightly more rarefied. Antique shop windows gleaming with captivating treasures: oil paintings, antique silver, and elegant estate jewelry from a more genteel era. Flickering candlelight would beckon seductively from behind the paint-peeling shutters of old world restaurants, and the clink of crystal and pop of the wine cork, along with the tantalizing aroma of Creole and Cajun cuisine, would lure hungry visitors like moths to the flame.

And here, on Governor Nicholls Street, the hand-lettered sign hanging in her front window boldly proclaimed CROP TILL YOU DROP! TONIGHT!

Carmela grinned widely as she suddenly caught sight of a small woman with a cap of tight red curls barreling down the street. Then, a moment later, Tandy Bliss, laden with bulging scrapbook bags, shouldered open the painted blue door and tumbled in.

“Tandy!” exclaimed Carmela, rushing to embrace her dear friend and newest guest. “We weren’t expecting you for another four days and now here you are!”

“Honey, my sanity was severely in question,” declared Tandy wearily, adjusting scrapbooking bags on her small frame like a wrangler adjusting a pack horse. “ Darwin wasn’t one bit happy with me, but I had to bail.” Darwin, Tandy’s husband of twenty-five years, had “volunteered” Tandy to stay with his sister, Elvira Bliss Wilkerson, up in Ponchatoula. Tandy was supposed to help with the kids while Elvira was in the hospital.

“How did Elvira’s surgery go?” asked Carmela as they pushed their way past the two large folding tables she’d wedged into her shop to handle customer overflow, and headed for the big craft table at the back of the store.

Tandy stopped dead in her tracks and planted bony hands on slim hips. “Are you kidding?” she said, her voice rising to a decibel level that could only be called shrill. “Elvira wasn’t even in the hospital! She gave us this big song and dance about needing my help because she had to undergo major surgery. And then all they did was scrape her feet!”

The dozen or so women who were packed in at the two temporary craft tables collectively stopped what they were doing and stared at Tandy. Looking askance as well, Carmela ran a hand through the tawny mass of shoulder-length hair that framed her face.

“She had her feet scraped?” said Carmela. She paused. “What exactly is that, anyway?”

Waving a hand disdainfully, Tandy continued her journey toward the back of the crowded shop. “Search me,” she said. “Something to do with bunions and calluses. Or maybe it’s blisters and hammer toes. Anyway,” Tandy proclaimed, “I’m here to tell you that Elvira and that insurance agent husband of hers spawned four totally hideous children. Bona fide hellions, every one of them.”

Tandy slung her scrapbook bags down on the big wooden table at the back of the store and grinned widely at the women sitting there. “Hey there, chickens, I’m ba-ack,” she announced in a singsong voice.

Baby Fontaine and Byrle Coopersmith, two of Carmela’s regulars, murmured warm hellos. They were used to Tandy’s antics and crazy greetings. Since they were all scrapbook fanatics of the first magnitude, they saw each other almost every day. But Gabby Mercer-Morris, Carmela’s young assistant, immediately jumped up to give Tandy a big hug.

Tandy reciprocated the hug and delivered a quick peck on the cheek to Gabby. Then she turned her attention back to Carmela. “But enough about my trials and tribulations,” said Tandy. “Look at the gang you pulled in tonight, Miss Smart Business Lady. What have you got here? Almost twenty people?”

Carmela nodded and gave an appreciative gaze about her scrapbooking shop. Truth was, she was utterly thrilled at the turnout for her first all-night scrapbook crop. Besides her regulars like Tandy, Baby, and Byrle, another sixteen women had shown up. Hunkering down at the tables and ponying up twenty dollars each for unlimited use of Carmela’s ample stock of stencils, punches, sheets of peel-off lettering, colored pens, and fancy-edged scissors.

As a lucky strike extra, Carmela and Gabby were also planning to serve steaming mugs of homemade shrimp chowder, as well as all the pecan popovers and honey butter a hungry scrapbooker cared to snarf.

After getting Tandy settled in, Carmela threaded her way back through the tables, giving a suggestion here, passing out pens and scissors there. She couldn’t help but feel a burst of pride at how well her little scrapbooking shop was doing. She’d logged long hours and suffered sleepless nights to pull off her business venture. And now that she had eighteen months of real-time business ownership under her belt, she was feeling a lot more confident, a lot more hopeful that she’d be able to continue eking out a small but respectable profit.

But being an independent woman had recently taken on a new meaning for Carmela. Because besides being financially independent, she’d been forced to reclaim her independence as a single woman, too, when Shamus Allan Meechum, her husband of barely one year, had walked out on her. Had literally slipped out the back door of their Garden District home one afternoon and boogied his way into seclusion at the Meechum family’s camp house in the Barataria Bayou.

Had Carmela been shocked by this turn of events? Truth be told, she’d been rocked to the core.

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