She ran down the gravel road, struggling, stumbling. Her breath sawed in and out of her lungs, ragged and hot; painful, like serrated knives plunging into and pulling out of her chest. The night air was too thick, too heavy. She thought she might drown in it. Her legs wobbled beneath her like rubber, heavy with fatigue. Sweat streamed from her pores. It felt like her skin was ready to peel away, leaving her red and raw and bloody.
Blood. So much blood. On her hands. In her hair. On her face. She was painted with it. When she found someone—if she found someone—they would see the blood, too. They would see the whites of her eyes and the red of the blood that streaked down her cheeks and across her jaw. They would see the blood that stained her hands like red lace gloves. They would be horrified without even knowing the true horror of what had happened.
She replayed it over and over in her mind’s eye, the images flashing like a strobe light, like random scenes from a movie. The flash of the knife. The flailing arms. Blood spraying everywhere.
She could taste the blood: bitter and metallic. She could taste the salt of her sweat and her tears. The mix made a nauseating cocktail in her mouth. She choked on it as she tried to swallow. She could smell it. The stench of fear: blood and body odor, urine and feces. The memory was so strong and so real she gagged on it.
Then suddenly she was falling, sprawling headlong. The road rushed up to meet her, slammed into her, the gravel biting into the flesh of her hands and bare arms and knees and the side of her face. The impact rattled her brain and knocked the wind from her. She tried to gasp for air, frantic, thinking she might die.
Maybe it was better if she died. Maybe she should just lie down and quit. Everyone in her life would probably be happier, relieved, unburdened.
The night waited, ever-patient, oblivious to her pain, not caring if she lived or died. Things died in the swamp all the time. Death was just a part of life here.Things died in the swamp all the time. Death was just a part of life here.
As the roar of her pulse in her ears subsided to a dull throb, the sounds of the bayou came through: crickets and frogs, the groan of an alligator somewhere nearby, the splash of something hitting the water, the distant rumble of thunder as a storm rolled up from the Gulf. Something moved suddenly in the brush at the side of the road. A bird flew up, its wings thumping against the thick, still air.
Startled, gasping, she scraped and scrambled, swimming on the rock, struggling to get her feet under her and to get herself upright.
Headlights appeared around a bend in the road. A driver in the dead of night in the middle of nowhere—would this be help or harm? She knew all about the kind of men who prowled the darkness and preyed on women. A part of her wanted to crouch in the brush and hide. A part of her knew she couldn’t.
She stood in the middle of the road and waved her arms above her head.
“Help me! Stop! Help me. Please!” In her mind she was shouting, but she could barely hear the words. They seemed nothing more than a rasp in her throat.
The car drew closer. The headlights blinded her.
The driver had to see her now.
The vehicle slowed to a crawl.
“Help!” She flung herself at the driver’s side of the hood as if she could physically force the car to stop. “Please, help me!”
She slapped the hood with one hand and the windshield with the other, smearing the glass with blood. For just a second her eyes locked on the terrified face of the driver, a woman, and then the engine roared. The tires chewed at the gravel. The car leapt forward, and she fell to the side, trying to grab hold of a door handle. Her head cracked hard against the window. Bang! Thump! Thud! She hit the ground and rolled, choking on the dust, spitting out blood and gravel and a tooth.
She could have closed her eyes and willed it all away, slipping into the deep abyss of unconsciousness. She might lie there and die, be run over by a truck, or dragged into the swamp by an animal. But then she was on her hands and knees, crawling, coughing, crying, blood and tears and snot dripping from her face.
The thunder rumbled in the distance, but above her the moon was still white-bright, so bright that the sky around it glowed metallic blue. Down the road she could see the outline of a house, a shabby little box of a house, a yard with an old pickup parked near a sagging porch. A yellow bug light burned beside the front door.
She wobbled to her feet like a newborn deer and staggered on, one foot in front of the other, her focus on the house. Would someone come if she made it to the door? Would they call the police at someone knocking in the middle of the night? Or would they just mistake her for an intruder and shoot her?Would they call the police at someone knocking in the middle of the night? Or would they just mistake her for an intruder and shoot her?
Exhausted, she tripped on the front steps and fell onto the weathered boards of the old porch. Beyond feeling pain, she dragged herself the last few feet and banged a fist against the screen door. She wanted to cry out, to call for help, but her voice died in her throat. She slapped at the screen door, her strength draining out of her, rushing out of her like water down a hole.
Help me. Help me. Please God, someone help me . . .
“You done forgot your key again?”
The complaining voice seemed to come from a long distance, from a dream.
“I swear! I ought to leave you sleep with the hound dogs! Dat’s all what you deserve, you! I oughta shoot you first, coming home at this hour. Stinkin’ drunk, no doubt.”
The inner door creaked open.
Genevieve looked up at the woman in the doorway—a narrow, lined face, eyes popping, mouth open in shock, teeth missing, a halo of frizzed red hair shot through with gray. The face of an angel.
“Oh, my God in heaven!” the woman exclaimed.
“Help me. Please,” Genevieve whispered. “Someone killed me and my boy.”
And then the blackness of oblivion swallowed her whole.
Annie Broussard listened to the thunder rumble in the distance. The sound echoed the restlessness that stirred inside her. She felt anxious, on edge, as if she was waiting for something bad to happen. This had been going on for weeks now, ever since that night in June, when a call had awoken her from a deep, peaceful sleep.
Not that she wasn’t used to the phone ringing at all hours with bad news, but it was always someone else’s bad news, and she or Nick or both of them were being called on as sheriff’s detectives to come out and sort through the latest human catastrophe in Partout Parish. She had never been called to a catastrophe of her own until the night her tante Fanchon had been rushed to the hospital after suffering a stroke.
What had followed that call had been days and nights of breathless anxiety, Annie clinging by her mental fingertips to hope that ebbed and flowed like an erratic tide.
Fanchon Doucet had been her anchor since childhood. And even though Annie’s mother had exited her life without warning when she was small, Annie had never imagined Tante Fanchon doing the same. Fanchon and Uncle Sos were as constant as the North Star, as solid as stone—until that night in June.
Now, every time the phone rang in the middle of the night, Annie’s heart bolted at the thought that the call would be for her, not as a detective but as next of kin. She hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in four months.
Carefully, she slipped out of bed and padded across the cypress-wood floor to the window to peek through the blinds. The moon had yet to be overrun by the clouds, casting the night in a silver glow. Lightning spread across the sky in the distance like spiderweb cracks across dark glass. The thunder rolled after it and right along her nerves.
She liked to think she was too logical and practical to believe in signs and portents, but she couldn’t escape the fact that she had been raised by superstitious people in a superstitious place. The French Triangle of south Louisiana may have embraced all the modern amenities technology had to offer, but there were people in bayou country who still half believed in the loup-garou—a mythical swamp werewolf. Uncle Sos, as Catholic as any Cajun man in these parts, still wore a dime on a string around his neck to ward off bad gris-gris—curses and such. “Just in case,” he would say with a grin and a playful gleam in his dark eyes.
Annie wouldn’t have gone so far as to drill a hole in a dime, but she secretly wished for some protection against that now-familiar sense of dread that sat like a rock in her stomach.
It didn’t help that the unrelenting heat and humidity had everyone on their last nerve. Summer should have been a distant memory by now, but like a big ugly snake, it had sunk its fangs in deep and hung on, pumping its venom into the citizens of south Louisiana. Tempers and patience were running short. Bar fights and domestic calls were up, along with the temperature and the consumption of alcohol.
Everyone in the Sheriff’s Office was feeling the effects—on the job and off. And if the rise in calls to come between contentious citizens wasn’t enough, ten months into the tenure of their new boss, there were still problems and personality conflicts in the office. Most of the staff had worked their entire careers under the long reign of Gus Noblier, and no matter how any of them had or hadn’t gotten along with Gus, he had become a saint in absentia.
The new sheriff was an outsider, a usurper; too stiff, too arrogant, too brash. It didn’t matter that Gus himself had brought Kelvin Dutrow on board as chief deputy the year before his retirement. Dutrow wasn’t from here. He wasn’t one of them. Tensions within the department exacerbated the tensions out on the road. It was a vicious cycle, and every deputy and detective took that tension home to his or her family at the end of their shift. The Broussard-Fourcade household got a double dose.
The chaos and fury of a good old-fashioned thunderstorm would be a welcome break.
As if in answer to her thought, way out over the Atchafalaya Basin, lightning again chased itself across the sky, and the ominous low rumble of thunder followed seconds later.
On the other side of the room, Annie’s husband stirred in his sleep, grumbling, sweeping an arm along the empty space beside him.
“ ’Toinette? Where you at?” he asked, his voice a low, raspy growl.
She didn’t answer for a moment, still irritated with him for something he’d said to her earlier in the evening. He sat up, the sheet puddling around his narrow waist. It was too dark to make out his features. He was a broad-shouldered silhouette as he rubbed a hand over his face.
“There’s a storm coming,” Annie said.
She turned away from him and opened the blinds. The wind was starting to come up, ruffling the treetops and fluttering the ribbons of Spanish moss that draped the limbs of the big oak trees in the yard. That sense of anticipation rose within her again. Behind her, the sheets rustled and the bed creaked as Nick got up.
“Good,” he said.
He stepped too close. She slipped to the side.
“You gonna be mad at me forever or what?” he asked.
He bent his head and sighed, his warm breath stirring the hair at the nape of her neck as he moved close again, corralling her between his arms, trapping her between himself and the window. He whispered something in French and brushed his lips against the curve of her shoulder.
“Don’t.” Annie shrugged him off and ducked under his arm. “You know that just pisses me off,” she whispered. “I’m angry with you, and you think you can just brush it aside like it doesn’t even matter, like I’m liable to just forget about it if only you can get me to have sex with you.”
Of course, he wouldn’t have been wrong in that assumption—a truth that made her even more irritated with herself.
He tipped back his head and blew out a sigh. “Mon Dieu.”
Annie’s temper spiked another notch. “Oh, I’m sorry my feelings are so tedious for you.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t have to.”
“It’s the middle of the damn night,” he said wearily. “Do we have to fight now?”Considering their relationship had essentially begun when Annie had arrested Nick for assaulting a murder suspect, it wasn’t surprising that people had doubted they would last.
She didn’t want to fight at all, but that seemed to be their new normal of late: too many sharp words and tense silences. It seemed the only place they didn’t rub each other the wrong way was in bed, where the tension between them seemed only to ratchet up the sexual heat. What transpired between them during sex was explosive and incredible as they both tried to reach beyond their frustration to connect as they always had on this other plane of being that was beyond words. Out of bed they were out of step with each other, like awkward dancers hearing two different beats.
They both blamed their jobs and the heat, the stress of Fanchon’s stroke, and Nick’s difficulties with a sexual assault case he’d been working all summer and fall to no conclusion. The various pressures had rubbed their nerves raw.
It was an unfamiliar place for them to be, this awkward limbo. To the bemusement of many, they had a rock-solid marriage—six years now. Considering their relationship had essentially begun when Annie had arrested Nick for assaulting a murder suspect, it wasn’t surprising that people had doubted they would last. She was a hometown good girl, while Nick had a long reputation as a difficult man with a checkered past.
Plenty of people had believed he was more than a little disturbed and dangerous when he had first come to Bayou Breaux—many thought that still. He had a volatile nature, always teetering on the edge of darkness.
His temper was a thing of legend, and he did not suffer fools. But he was the way he was, not because he was crazy but because he cared too much about what he did and the people he did it for.
“Bobby Theriot called last night,” he confessed.
“Oh, Nick.” Annie sighed, her annoyance with him instantly gone. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“What’s to tell? The man wants justice for his daughter, and me, I can’t give it to him.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“Whose fault is it, then? It’s my case. That buck stops with me, does it not?”
“You can’t give him what you don’t have.”
“And therein lies my failing.”
The Theriot case was a straight-up whodunit. The sexual assault of Vanessa Theriot, a nonverbal girl with autism, who was unable to communicate what had happened to her. If she knew the identity of her molester, that secret was locked inside the labyrinth of her mind. The forensics had given them nothing to go on. No witness had come forward to point the investigation in any direction. They had no clear suspects.
“The Theriots want someone to blame,” Nick said. “Until we have the person who hurt their daughter, I’m it.”
Annie’s protective instincts rose up like hackles. She knew how hard Nick was working the case. She knew how much sleep he’d lost, the toll it had taken on him. She wanted to rush to his defense against Bobby Theriot’s verbal abuse, which had steadily escalated over the past month, but Nick wouldn’t have it.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, sliding her arms around his lean, hard torso, pressing her cheek to the thick muscle of his chest.
“Me, too,” he murmured, softly kissing the top of her head. He wrapped his arms around her tight and whispered, “Je t’aime, mon coeur, ma jolie fille.”
He had grown up a swamper’s son, speaking French at home as a fair number of families in these parts did. French was still his preferred language. He thought in French, spoke French to their son, made love in French.
“I love you, too,” Annie whispered.
“Come back to bed, ’Toinette,” he said. “I need to hold you for a while.”
She tipped her face up to look at him and met his lips with hers. He kissed her slowly and deeply. As always, the wave of heat was instantaneous, washing over her, through her, pooling deep within her body. When he lifted his mouth from hers, she murmured, “I think you may need to do more than just hold me.”
He groaned deep in his throat and took her mouth again, with more urgency, sweeping a hand down the curve of her side and pulling her hips hard against his.
Across the room, his cell phone came to life on the nightstand. They both sighed in frustration. A call this late at night to a sheriff’s detective was never anything good or anything quickly resolved.
Outside, lightning cracked like a whip across the night sky. Thunder boomed like distant cannon fire behind it.
“I’m going to go check on Justin,” Annie said, as Nick moved to answer the call.
She slipped into her robe and padded barefoot down the hall. She could hear their son stirring in his sleep, whimpering softly as she cracked open his bedroom door. At five, he was still afraid of thunderstorms, most times ending up tucked between her and Nick in their bed. He was a sweet, sensitive little boy—a little too sensitive to the recent tensions between his parents, making him moody and clingy. Bad timing, as he started kindergarten. Another stressor for Annie, another pang of guilt.
The nightlight allowed her to see his face. He was a miniature of Nick with his straight dark eyebrows and full lower lip. He was frowning in his sleep, just as his father did. Her heart swelled to overflowing with love every time she looked at him.
“I gotta go,” Nick said, suddenly behind her.
Annie jumped and turned to face him.
His expression was set in the grim lines of a comic book hero’s: the high cheekbones and iron jaw, a hawkish nose, brows lowered over dark eyes. He had pulled on a black T-shirt and a pair of camouflage cargo pants. His badge hung on a ball chain around his neck. This was what he wore to death scenes: the badge hanging for easy identification, the cargo pants for the usefulness of the pockets.
“You’re up, too, cher,” he said. “That thunder’s not the only storm brewing tonight. Our victim is a little boy.”