The Greek Revival mansion sat a hundred feet back from Saint Charles Avenue, separated from the street by a six-foot-tall wrought iron fence. The house was stately, the lawn perfectly manicured and the very air around it smelled sweeter, or so it seemed to Alia Kingsley as she snagged a few feet of curb space and climbed out of her car.
The only things more out of place than her in New Orleans’s Garden District this summer morning were the vehicles that overflowed the mansion’s brick-paved drive and clogged the side street. New Orleans Police Department cars, marked and unmarked; an ambulance, its paramedics standing idle; a van from the coroner’s office; sedans bearing US Government tags; and trucks carrying the logos of the local media outlets.
Yellow crime-scene tape kept the reporters and curious neighbors at bay. Alia flashed her credentials to the young cop standing guard at the end of the drive, and he lifted the tape so she could pass. “Who’s in charge?”
“Not me. I’m crowd control,” he said with a shrug. “Ask one of the detectives.”
With a nod, she followed the drive up a slight incline. Another uniformed officer stood guard at the back door of the house. A short distance away, a sailor, his face as colorless as his summer whites, sat at a patio table, a handkerchief pressed to his mouth. He was talking to Jimmy DiBiase, college football star turned cop and, more importantly in her opinion, if not his, her ex-husband.
This wasn’t a good start to her week.
When Jimmy saw her, he left the table and met her halfway. “I was hopin’ you’d catch this.”
“Yeah, we work so well together,” she said drily.
“We did a lot of things good together.”
“Are you sure that was you and me, or maybe one of your girlfriends?”
He had the grace to flush at that, though if he truly felt any regret it didn’t show in his voice. “Aw, sweet pea, we ain’t ever gonna work things out if you don’t give ole Jimmy a break.” With that Southern drawl and broad grin of his, he managed to make the two of them working things out sound almost reasonable. Lucky for her, at 8:10 a.m. without nearly enough caffeine in her system, reasonable didn’t put in an appearance on her list of things to be.
She gestured to the mansion behind him. “Whose house?”
“You don’t know?”
Obviously someone with money and, considering the official navy vehicle in the driveway and the kid in uniform, someone with enough rank to rate a driver. But she didn’t start her days, or her cases, making guesses, so she waited for Jimmy to tell her. He did so with great pleasure.
“Honey, you are a special guest at the family home of Rear Admiral Jeremiah Jackson Junior.”
She knew the name, of course. A special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service couldn’t spend more than a day at the New Orleans office without hearing Admiral Jackson mentioned. He was nothing less than a legend—tough as nails, hard-line, a leftover from the days when being an officer and a gentleman meant something. His career had been long and illustrious, his navy commands as shipshape as any and more than most.
“Is he the victim?” she asked, gazing at the back of the house. Windows marched across each of three stories in perfect symmetry. The admiral liked order in his job as well as his home. She knew his type well. Her own father, Rear Admiral Charles Kingsley, Retired, was just like him.
“Him. His housekeeper. Her daughter. The gardener.”
Alia’s breath caught in her chest. “How old was the daughter?”
“Mid-twenties. Had Down syndrome.”
Four homicides. The spotlight would be shining brightly on this case. “Did the housekeeper live in?”
“Had quarters right there.” He nodded toward the nearest corner of the house.
“And the gardener? Did he live here, too?”
“She. No. She just liked to get an early start before the day got too hot.”
Alia shifted her gaze to the lawn. The grass was clipped, the sidewalks, driveway and beds neatly edged. Flowers bloomed profusely, and the pots spaced evenly across the patio contained plantings so healthy they looked fake. The gardener’s dedication to her job had been admirable...though it had cost her her life.
Finally she looked at Jimmy again and asked the important question. “How did they die?”
“Stabbed. Once each on the employees, in the chest. The gardener also suffered a blow to the head. We figure she walked in and surprised the killer, so he knocked her out, then killed her. The old woman was found in bed, the daughter on the floor beside her bed.”
“And the admiral?”
Jimmy hesitated. “In his bed. When I came out to talk to the driver, the ME’s investigator was still counting the wounds. He was up to twenty-seven.”