Authors: Carolyn Haines
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #FICTION / Mystery and Detective / General, #FICTION / Mystery and Detective / Historical
Bones to Pick
My Mother’s Witness
Summer of the Redeemers
a division of F+W Media, Inc.
For Fran and Mike Utley
HE bare pecan trees of the Julinot orchard clawed the sky as Raymond Thibodeaux drove past. The storm had blown in from the Gulf of Mexico without warning, bringing rain and the first promise of winter’s cold. The front passed as quickly as it had come, leaving behind treacherous roads and rising swamps that lapped hungrily at the fringes of land.
Raymond gripped the Ford’s steering wheel, feeling the slide of the bald, narrow tires in the slick bog. A full moon broke through the cloud cover and lit the road more sharply than the headlamps of his car as he drove fast toward tragedy. It was always tragedy when he was summoned. Death and loss were his boon companions, met in a land across the ocean, and now he couldn’t escape them.
He pressed the accelerator to the floorboards. It was only tragedy that allowed him to burn the gasoline, which was in such short supply with the war on. Folks in New Iberia, Louisiana, didn’t send for the law unless there was no other recourse open to them.
As he thought back to the visit that had prompted his drive, he felt a touch of uneasiness. Twenty minutes earlier Emanuel Agee had arrived at the sheriff’s office, breathless, pale, teeth chattering. “Beaver Creek,” he managed to spit out. “Hurry.”
The boy had disappeared back into the night, leaving only the wet prints of his bare feet on the floor of the sheriff’s office. None of the residents of Iberia Parish lingered in the sheriff’s office, especially when Raymond was there. It was true that folks avoided him, made uneasy by his melancholy.
Worried by Emanuel’s obvious fear, Raymond had stepped out into the lashing rain. There was no sign the boy had really been there. Some folks might say a banshee or a wild creature had stolen the boy’s spirit and come to make mischief for the deputy. Even though the rain had swept away all traces of Emanuel, Raymond knew the boy had ducked into an alley, not wishing to be questioned.
Raymond had gotten his revolver, a flashlight, and his hat and headed the five miles to the small creek that was filled with bream and crawfish in the hot summer months.
Beaver Creek was only a bit beyond the Julinot farm, and he began to slow in the sticky mud as he neared the bridge. Much of his work involved pulling vehicles from swollen creeks when the driver was too intoxicated to judge the narrow, rail-less bridges. He dreaded the thought of finding more drowned people. Women and children, the innocent passengers, men at the wheel, the fear of what they’d done frozen into their features. He had no wish to see such things, but it was his job. Joe Como, the sheriff, didn’t like to be disturbed in the middle of the night. Joe, who’d Anglicized the name Comeaux for political aspirations, preferred the coffee shop and conversation. The dead he left to his deputy.
As Raymond neared the creek, he could clearly see the bridge, undamaged, in the moonlight. It was October, the Hunter’s Moon. With the storm clouds blowing past, the moon shone with a milky white intensity, casting long shadows on the road.
He stopped on the bridge. There was no sign of an accident. Water flowed fast and free beneath the wooden trestles. Puzzled, he walked down the bridge to the bank to check for tracks. He found nothing but the sluices cut into the sandy soil where storm water had coursed.
As he climbed the bank, he heard a sound that caused the hair along his neck to prickle. Laughter slipped through the trees, coming from all directions, surrounding him. His hand upon the slender trunk of a cypress, he stopped completely. His body tensed, and he felt the bite of metal near his spine. He brought his gun out of its holster in one smooth motion, gripped it loosely, and listened.
Laughter seeped around him again, the sound of madness. He could almost sniff it on the wind, and he followed it back to the road, knowing that at last his past had caught up with him.
Walking around a bend, he came upon her.
For one long moment he stood and stared at the woman. At what lay at her feet. At the blood glistening in the moonlight on her hands and face and the rivulets of it tracing the path of the rain along the dirt road. At the long, twisted ropes of intestines that had been pulled from the savaged abdomen of the dead man.
Raymond’s heart beat fast. In all the horrors he’d witnessed and caused, he’d never seen anything that chilled him this deeply. He moved slowly toward her, and she turned to face him, her body crouched and wary. No matter that she stood on two legs, she had the grace of an animal, a wild thing caught in the midst of feeding. Her dress was torn, revealing the white of her thighs and a flash of buttock as she swung around, keeping the corpse between them. It was her eyes that held him, though. As dark as swamp pools, they burned.
“Easy,” he said. “I’m Deputy Thibodeaux. Don’t make me hurt you.” He aimed at her heart. She was very thin, too malnourished to be any kind of threat under normal circumstances. He knew most everyone in the parish, but he didn’t recognize her. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he repeated. He realized, too late, that he’d given voice to his personal curse. He’d never wanted to hurt anyone, yet he was so good at it.
The woman laughed, a sound of joy and something else, something indefinable. When he stepped toward her, she dropped to a crouch over the body and growled.
“Get away from the body.” He stepped closer, determined to do his duty. In the moonlight her eyes glinted as if struck by some lunar spell. “Get back from him.” He was close enough now to see that the dead thing at her feet was Henri Bastion, the wealthiest man in Iberia Parish.
The woman lunged forward, and he sighted on her heart. He’d killed many things but never a woman. She would be the first.
“Back away,” he said. “Now!”
She straightened slowly. Her hands fell to her side and she lifted her chin to the moon, exposing a long, slender throat that worked convulsively to release the howl that fought its way out.
The screened door of her cabin banged in the wind, and Florence Delacroix pulled her robe more closely together and inched up by the fire. The leaping flames danced shadows across her face, hiding and revealing a classic profile with full lips and wide green eyes. A moon-shaped scar followed the curve of her cheek. She turned to the boy, who was huddled beside her in a quilt.
“You saw the body?”
Emanuel Agee held the cup of steaming chocolate to his lips and nodded. When the screened door banged again, he cut his eyes toward it.
“It’s the wind, boy. Nothing but the wind.” She thought that he was a handsome child, black hair and dark eyes filled with intelligence, like his papa. “Tell me what you saw.”
“His guts was strowed all over the road. She was standin’ over him, laughin’. She look right at me.” He blinked. “You think she put a curse on me?”
Florence studied him. “There’s no curse on you.” She rumpled his hair. “So Henri Bastion met a devil he couldn’t bargain with.” Florence stood up and went to. her dresser. She riffled through a purse and came back with a coin. Handing it to the boy, she caressed his head again, feeling the fine hair slip through her fingers. “You were right to come here and tell me.”
“Daddy said to tell the sheriff and then come to you. He say you look out for me.”
“Your daddy is a wise man. You can always find safety with Florence.”
“It was the
the boy said, his breath so short he almost couldn’t say the words. “It took that woman and turned her.”
Florence sat back down in front of the fire. “Henri Bastion was a man with enemies. Someone finally got mad enough to kill him. That’s all.”
“She had hair all over her.”
Florence examined his face, seeing the fear in his eyes. “Did she now? Hair all over?”
He nodded. “She killed him, and she meant to eat him.”
“Henri would make a tough stew.”
“She meant to eat him raw.”
“Did you know this woman,
Florence asked. She’d run through the list of women strong enough to kill a man in Iberia Parish, and she’d come up empty. Henri Bastion was a man in his prime. A man who, rumors told, beat a prisoner working his farm to death with his bare hands. Unless Henri was injured or drunk, no woman would stand a chance against him.
Emanuel shook his head. “She didn’t look like no woman I ever seen.” He turned solemn eyes up to her. “Whoever she once was, she’s not her anymore.
She took the cup from the boy’s shaking hands. “Do you want to walk back home tonight or stay here? I’d drive you but gas coupons are dear.”
“I ain’t goin’ home. Not through the woods at night with a demon on the hunt. Likta killed myself gettin’ here.”
There were indeed scratches on the boy’s face, neck, and hands where he’d fought his way through briars and vines, unwilling to take his time in case the werewolf was sniffing his tracks. “Then you’d best make a pallet on the floor. Come daybreak you need to be gone. Won’t do for folks to know you stayed here with me.”
Raymond never gave the woman a chance to run. She seemed enraptured by the moon, her gaze focused on it. He moved in fast, knocking her legs out from under her. She went down hard, the wind forced momentarily from her lungs. The minute Raymond touched her, he knew she was seriously ill. Her skin burned under his hand. She jerked and quivered at his touch like a wild thing, rolling her eyes and gnashing her teeth. She flipped to her stomach and tried to crawl away, scrabbling in the road and revealing her nakedness without a semblance of shame.
“Take it easy,” he said, reaching for her flailing wrist. “I’m trying to help you.”
She snapped at his hand, growling. Her voice was gravelly, as if her throat were raw. Talonlike fingers clutched at the damp clay.
Raymond twisted her arm, rolling her onto her back. She fought him with a ferocity that was completely silent except for her harsh breathing. He straddled her, trying to hold her down without hurting her. As he sought to capture her wrists, his hand found one firm breast. She writhed beneath him, bucking with a strength that was hard to comprehend. At last, he snapped the handcuffs on her and jumped clear.