Page 17 of Bayou Hero

The neighborhood where she lived consisted of three main streets: Serenity, Divinity and Trinity. It had gone through several phases in its history, from upper middle class to mostly slum, then back to respectability. Though some houses remained shuttered and decaying, in the past ten years new owners had given most of them new life. The gangbangers had been forced out, the local church was flourishing, and the neighborhood had its own market, preschool and two restaurants. They hadn’t had a violent crime in their few blocks in three years.

Alia had talked to Jimmy while dressing, arranging to meet midmorning to trade notes from yesterday. First, though, she was going to surprise Miss Viola and find out if the old lady was any more forthcoming about the Jackson family without a Jackson in the room.

With the radio providing background noise, Alia took a bite of bagel, savored the oniony dough and the creamy cheese and wished she’d tossed a handful of candy bars into her bag. Breakfast, no matter what it was, was always more satisfying with chocolate.

Her mind wandered as she drove, mostly to the whereabouts of Camilla Kingsley. Landry had said she’d had no choice when he’d left home. He never gave any of us a choice, he’d muttered. What about now? At her age, had she earned the right to make a few decisions for herself, such as this trip out of town? When she heard the news of her husband’s death, would she return home? Was she even alive to hear the news?

Maybe Miss Viola would tell her more than she’d volunteered yesterday.

The Fulsom home looked even statelier today. The white columns and siding gleamed in the morning sun. The dew-dampened grass seemed greener, the pastels of the flowers overflowing the beds softer. Alia parked in the driveway, in the dappled shade of an oak, got out and glanced around. A tall wrought iron fence circled the backyard, and the flowering vines that grew over it blocked even a glimpse inside while perfuming the air with their sweet jasmine.

A dog barked across the street, and a lawn mower sounded nearby. A woman sat on a porch swing—mother or nanny—while a small girl played with dolls. Life as usual.

Alia climbed the steps, weaving past a pair of antique rockers, bypassing a breakfast table and two chairs, reaching the door. She would bet every area of the house, inside and out, offered little seating areas for private conversations, both good and bad.

At the door, she pressed the bell, listening to its deep tones echoing inside. She pressed her ear close to the wood of the door, straining for any answering response. No footsteps. No call for housekeeper Molly to answer the door with a plate of her famous desserts in hand.

Alia moved to the right, sliding behind a settee to look inside the nearest window of the library. Fingers cupped to the glass to deflect reflections, she noted the old oak library table, the chair where she’d sat, the shelves she’d faced. Her gaze swept to the left, through the open doors into the entryway: elegant stairs sweeping to the second floor, a painting of a Fulsom ancestor on the wall above a demilune table, a priceless chandelier casting more shadows than it banished...and a small pink-clad shape on the floor.

Her breath caught in her chest. The form was thin, tiny, the pink a robe, one slipper to match, mussed white hair. The body lay mostly on a rug at the foot of the stairs, but the pale, frail hands were on the polished floor, fingers spread wide, the ruby ring catching a ray of light.

“Aw, Miss Viola,” she whispered. “Damn...”

Turning her back on the window and retreating a few steps, she called Jimmy, then her supervisor. Maybe they would be lucky, and Miss Viola’s death would be accidental. The old lady was eighty-one. Maybe she’d fallen, her heart had stopped or she’d suffered a stroke. Maybe it had just been her time. Maybe it wasn’t related, just purely coincidental to the other murders.

But if they weren’t lucky, the body count had just reached five. Were there more deaths to come?

Letting the scene process in the back of her mind, Alia began a walk around the house, looking for any signs of forced entry. Locating an unsecured gate into the backyard, she went through it, cell phone in one hand, pistol in the other.

She’d expected small elaborate gardens, an enormous swimming pool, a cabana or two, sprawling seating for fifty, a tiled or wood platform to support Miss Viola’s favorite string quartet or for speech-giving at political fund-raisers.

The space was lovely, but beyond a modest red-brick patio down a few steps from the veranda, it was all garden: vegetable, shade, orchard and flowers. Standing on the patio, she identified tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, cantaloupes, herbs, lettuce, cabbage, an entire rainbow of bell peppers—enough produce to stock the market at the entrance to the Serenity neighborhood. What did an elderly woman want with such a large garden?