There are two kinds of people in this world. Muffin people. And everybody else. The everybody else consists of the usual suspects—the cookie people, the cupcake people, and last but not least, the doughnut people.
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against any of them personally. But my people are the muffin people. They’re the ones who frequent The Bistro by the Beach, the café I co-own with my friend Sarah Powers here in Whispering Bay, Florida.
The muffin people totally get me. They also help keep me in business, so when one of my “people” asks for a favor, it’s hard to say no.
Victor Marino, a retired postal worker and a regular here at the café, stands across the counter looking at me with pleading eyes and a story I’m finding hard to resist because it’s just so deliciously out there.
“Let me get this straight,” I say to Victor and his shifty seventy-something-year-old sidekick, Phoebe Van Cleave. “You want Paco to help you channel the ghost of some dead pirate?”
Phoebe and Victor belong to the Sunshine Ghost Society, a local group that likes to commune with the dead. A year ago, I would have laughed in their faces, but a lot has happened in the past twelve months that makes it impossible for me to remain skeptical.
Paco, who likes to hang out with me behind the counter while I’m working, gives me a look that lets me know he’s just as intrigued by this dead pirate as I am. He’s a tan colored Chihuahua-terrier mix that I rescued after I solved a local murder. Since then, Paco and I have gone on to solve numerous crimes.
The majority of our sleepy little north Florida community attributes our sleuthing success to luck. But luck has nothing to do with it. Paco, you see, is a ghost-whisperer, and I have the gift of knowing when someone is lying or telling the truth. Together, we’re quite the dynamic duo.
Most people are aware of Paco’s ghost-whispering abilities—he even has his own Facebook page that was set up by a former owner. But only family and a handful of my closest friends know about my special gift. On top of all that, Paco and I can now communicate with one another. It took me a while to figure it out, but he understands human language. We can also sense what the other one is thinking. Don’t ask me how it works. It just does. At least for now.
“Lucy,” Victor says, “it’s not just any dead pirate. It’s Lazy Eye Louie!”
I can’t help but snort. “Why can’t pirates have normal names, like John Jones?”
Phoebe rolls her eyes at me like she’s dealing with a nitwit. “Lazy Eye Louie was the nickname given to Luis Sánchez. Is that normal enough for you?”
I’d like to nit her wit. Phoebe Van Cleave has been a thorn in my side for as long as I’ve known her. If I say black, she says white. But I have to put up with her because as president of the Sunshine Ghost Society, she could easily choose to hold their weekly breakfast meetings at another café, and I’d hate to lose them as customers. Especially if they decided to hold their meetings at Heidi’s Bakery, a local establishment that makes great pancakes and yes, I’ll admit it, even better doughnuts.
Recently, Heidi’s Bakery got a 5-star review from the Fussy Foodie, a notoriously picky food critic who writes a snarky blog. One good review from him and you’re gold.
Not that I’m jealous or anything. No way! Why should I be jealous when I make the best muffins in the world (not that I’d say my muffins were the best in the world, but others have, and who am I to contradict them?).
Sarah and I have worked hard to make our café warm and inviting. The building sits on prime real estate overlooking the crystal-clear blue water of the Gulf of Mexico. The walls are painted with murals of frolicking dolphins, the floors are a polished light wood, and Jimmy Buffet can always be heard on the overhead speaker. Plus, the food is unbelievable.
If the Fussy Foodie, or rather, his assistant, had taken the time to visit The Bistro by the Beach, I’m sure we would have gotten a 5-star review too.
I shake myself back to the conversation. “Luis Sánchez, huh? Never heard of him.”
“He was rumored to have stolen a fortune in doubloons from another pirate before taking off on a boat that eventually crashed during a storm,” says Victor. “His body, as well as any treasure he might have stolen, was never recovered.” His eyes gleam with excitement. “Here’s the good part. The pirate he stole the treasure from was none other than José Gaspar.”
Most people in Florida know the legend of José Gaspar, an early nineteenth-century pirate who raided up and down the Florida west coast and hid out in the Tampa Bay. Heck, there’s even a festival named after him.
Every winter, the streets of Tampa go wild on Gasparilla weekend, where basically the whole town turns into one big pirate fest. There’s a boat flotilla, a parade, fireworks, and lots of drunken shenanigans. My one and only Gasparilla experience ended with me getting hit between the eyes by a bead missile that knocked my glasses clear off my face, so I’ve avoided it ever since.
“I thought José Gaspar wasn’t real. I mean, isn’t he just an excuse for people to behave badly?”
Phoebe raises a brow at me. “It’s true. No historian has been able to verify his existence. Until now,” she adds dramatically. “With Paco’s help, we could make one of the most important discoveries in recent history.”
Paco barks. Tell me more.
Betty Jean Collins, who works part-time at the café, pops her head out the cutaway window connecting the kitchen to the dining area. Betty Jean is eighty but has the soul of a frustrated teenager in the throes of puberty. She’s also a member of the Sunshine Ghost Society and almost as nosy as Phoebe. “Well?” she asks Victor and Phoebe like I’m not standing three feet from her face. “Is Lucy on board?”
“She’s thinking about it,” Victor says.
Sarah pokes her head around Betty Jean to see what’s going on. Sarah is a few years older than me, blonde, blue-eyed, and beautiful. She’s also a terrific friend, a great business partner, and makes the best macaroni and cheese you’ve ever tasted. “What’s up?” she asks, her gaze curious.
“Phoebe and Victor want Lucy’s permission to use Paco during a séance to conjure up the ghost of Lazy Eye Louie,” Betty Jean explains as if this scenario is all perfectly normal.
Sarah makes a face. “Sorry I asked.”
I glance around the near-empty dining room. It’s ten till two, which means it’s almost closing time. “Let’s sit down to talk about this. Betty Jean can man the counter in case someone comes in.”
Betty Jean scurries to take my place, leaving me free to follow Victor and Phoebe to a table in the corner. Naturally, Paco trots along. I stretch out my back and have a seat. It’s been a long day, and something tells me it’s about to get even longer. “Okay, start from the beginning.”
Victor nods eagerly. “I got a call this morning from Professor Mortimer Drake. Have you heard of him?”
“Sorry. The name doesn’t ring a bell.”
“He’s written a book chronicling the history of piracy in Florida. Fascinating stuff. He’s spent most of his career trying to prove the existence of José Gaspar.”
Against my better judgment, I motion for him to continue.
“About a month ago, he stumbled across the diary of a bootlegger—a man by the name of Luis Sánchez.”
“Also known as Lazy Eye Louie,” I say, warming up to the nickname. I have to admit, it does have a certain panache to it.
“That’s right,” Victor says. “Before he was known as Lazy Eye, Luis was a Spanish soldier stationed in Cuba during the early nineteenth century who went AWOL. He stole a boat and sailed away to Florida. It’s here that he met a pirate by the name of Jean Marquette—”
“Ooh. What was his pirate name?”
Victor blinks. “Um, he didn’t have a pirate name. At least, none that I’m aware of.”
“Oh.” Well, that’s disappointing. What’s the point of being a pirate if you don’t have a cool name?
“According to Sánchez’s diary,” Victor continues, “he began selling liquor to Marquette. And that’s where things get interesting.”
Paco nudges my leg with the tip of his cold nose. I hope you’re getting all this.
Oh, brother. Who knew my dog had a pirate fetish?
“According to Sánchez’s diary, Marquette was none other than José Gaspar’s right-hand man. One night while they were drinking, Sánchez tricked Marquette into showing him where Gaspar hid his gold. Sánchez snuck back later and stole it.”
“And we know this because of this lost diary of his?”
“Exactly,” Phoebe says. “Historians believe that Lazy Eye Louie fled with another pirate’s booty, only to have his boat sink during a storm. It was presumed that Lazy Eye Louie, along with the treasure, were somewhere at the bottom of the Gulf. Until the discovery of the diary, they didn’t know that the pirate he stole from was Gaspar.”
“And how exactly does Paco work into this scenario?”
“Last week, a fishing boat discovered an unchartered island approximately twenty miles off the coast of Whispering Bay. The coordinates put the island in the very path that Lazy Eye Louie noted in his diary. It’s a long shot, but Professor Drake has hired a crew to take him out to the island so he can explore. If the professor is right in his hunch, and he always is—the man is absolutely brilliant—this could be the clue to finding Lazy Eye Louie’s remains.”
Longshot? It sounds more like a wild goose chase to me.
“And you want to do a séance?” I ask. “After all these years you’d think Louie would have moved on.”
Phoebe makes a face. “Lucy McGuffin, how many times do I have to explain to you that the spirit tends to linger near the earthly body?”
“Yeah, yeah.” I take it all in. “Let’s say, as improbable as this sounds, Lazy Eye Louie’s body is on that island and Paco is able to communicate with him. Then what?”
Victor leans in eagerly. “Then maybe he’ll tell us the truth about José Gaspar. Can you imagine, Lucy, if we were the ones who could provide hard evidence that Gaspar was a real person? The Sunshine Ghost Society would be famous! They’ll write articles about us in all the journals. We might even be on TV.”
I’m not sure how the spirit of some long-ago dead pirate could provide any “hard evidence” of José Gaspar’s existence, but past experience has taught me that where the Sunshine Ghost Society is concerned, logic flies out the door.
“Don’t forget, Victor, we’re not the only ones who would benefit from this,” Phoebe points out. “All of Professor Drake’s hard work would finally be recognized the way it should be.”
The hair on the back of my neck tingles. It’s the physical reaction I get whenever someone lies to me. The bigger the reaction, the bigger the lie. Only, this tingling sensation is so subtle that I barely noticed it.
Nothing in Phoebe’s statement feels like a lie, but if it caused my Spidey sense to go off even the tiniest bit, there’s something not quite right with what she’s just said. It’s as if Phoebe has a personal stake in this discovery beyond her ties to the Sunshine Ghost Society.
“So, this Professor Drake,” I say to Phoebe, “you follow his work?”
Phoebe sniffs. “You forget, Lucy. Before I retired, I taught history at Whispering Bay High for over 3o years. Anyone with any interest in Florida history has read all of Mortimer Drake’s books.”
Lucky for me, Phoebe had already retired by the time I hit high school. “When are you going out on the boat?” I ask.
“Saturday,” Victor says. “We’re leaving the marina at 8 a.m. sharp.”
Victor grimaces. “We only discovered all this today when Professor Drake reached out to our society to see if we could be of help. Naturally, Phoebe and I immediately thought of Paco.”
Sometimes my dog’s fame is a real pain in the rear end.
“I couldn’t let him go out on a boat without me. And I’m working. Saturdays are always busy. Can’t you get a human medium to help you? You must have a couple of those lying around somewhere.”
“Actually, we are getting some help in that department,” Victor says. “The medium’s name is Bonnie Clark. She’s flying in from New York just to be part of our expedition. She was recommended by a member of Dr. Drake’s entourage but her credentials are a bit sketchy. It would be so much better if we had someone we trusted, like Paco.”
“Besides, one day away from this place isn’t going to kill you,” Phoebe says flippantly. “Sarah and Betty Jean will be here at The Bistro tomorrow, won’t they? Not to mention that other person who helps out from time to time. What’s her name again?”
“Jill!” Betty Jean yells from across the room. Boy, talk about mad skills. Betty Jean is either a master eavesdropper or she’s got the best hearing aids in town.
“Don’t you have your book club thing at the library tomorrow?” I shout back at her. Betty Jean runs a local book club that meets at her house once a month and there’s a waiting list to join. I’m an honorary member, but that’s only because I bring free muffins to the meetings. Tomorrow, the book club members will be hosting a read-in at the library that’s open to the public. It’s a new program the library is trying out in an effort to show how reading can bring people together.
“It’s not until noon so I can work until 11:30. And no worries! I’ll get Jill to cover for me,” she shouts back.
“The Sunshine Ghost Society would be willing to pay Jill’s wages if that would help free you up.” Phoebe’s beady eyes narrow. “You wouldn’t want to rob Paco of this opportunity, would you?”
Paco looks up at me with his big brown Chihuahua eyes. Yes, yes, yes. I want to talk to a dead pirate.
I feel like that parent who can’t say no to her child even when they know they should. I’ve let the Sunshine Ghost Society use Paco as a medium before, and the results were almost disastrous. The society accidentally conjured up the ghost of a woman who’d kidnapped Paco and it nearly cost me my precious little dog. I’m not sure I’m willing to take that risk again. No matter how intriguing this pirate adventure sounds.
Victor hands me a slip of paper. “Here’s all the information you’ll need regarding the boat, the island, and the departure time.” He spears me with a look almost as pathetic as Paco’s. “Please, Lucy. It would mean the world to us.”
“Let me think about it,” I say.
Paco barks happily. Oh goody. That means yes.