“B-but Miss Viola... All th-these police c-c-cars... What’s happened?” Mary Ellen didn’t look as if she’d rested last night. Her eyes were bloodshot, dark circles underneath them, and her chin was wobbling now. “Where is Miss Viola? Is she all right? We’ve got to see her. We’ve got to—Landry!”
There were no circles around his eyes, no sign that a single tear had fallen. He was dressed more formally today, in gray trousers and a blue button-down, with that same antique watch on his left wrist. A family heirloom, likely from the Landry side of the family. Had it come from the Jacksons, it would likely be buried in silt at the bottom of the Mississippi.
His mouth was hard, the look in his eyes even more so. “What happened?” His voice was low, soft as granite, devoid of emotion but, conversely, all the more touching for the lack of it.
“We don’t know yet. Miss Viola...” Alia looked away, noticing in some distant portion of her brain that the mother and child across the street had gone inside, then met Landry’s gaze. “She’s gone.”
She didn’t have to say more because a wail escaped Mary Ellen an instant before she swooned into her brother’s arms.
Landry hadn’t shed a single tear or felt a moment’s regret for his father’s death. He hadn’t worried overly much about his mother’s whereabouts. But as he clung to Mary Ellen, keeping her limp body from collapsing to the ground, grief rose inside him.
Miss Viola had been like a grandmother to him. She was the only person in his entire life who’d taken a chance on him, who’d stood up to his father for him. She had protected him and Mary Ellen when their own mother wouldn’t, had made it possible for both of them to escape the hell their house had become.
“Was it—” He couldn’t finish the question. His voice was too husky, his throat too clogged.
“It appears she fell down the stairs.”
He began shaking his head before she finished. “She didn’t use the stairs—hadn’t been up there since she came home from the rehab hospital last year.”
Alia nodded as if she already knew that. “We’ll know more once the coroner has completed the autopsy.”
Mary Ellen stirred, and he glanced down at her, freeing one hand to pull his cell from his pocket. “Can you call my brother-in-law and ask him to come get her?”
Alia took the phone, scrolled through the directory, then moved back down the porch, her voice covering the distance in little more than a murmur.
Landry helped Mary Ellen to the nearest chair, crouching in front of her. Tears seeping from her eyes, she plaintively asked, “What’s going on, Landry? First Mama, then the admiral, and now Miss Viola. Why? She never hurt anyone. Everyone loved her.”
He noticed she didn’t include their father in those sentiments. Jeremiah had hurt everyone, and Landry couldn’t think of one person who’d honestly, wholeheartedly loved the bastard. “It was probably an accident,” he said, though the words felt like a lie. Maybe it was paranoia, with his life being all disrupted the past day, but there was an icy place inside him that suspected the worst. He continued for Mary Ellen’s sake, though. “Maybe her heart...”
Mary Ellen smiled through her tears. “You know she never had a thing wrong with her besides that blasted hip.”
He managed his own faint smile. It was true, and Miss Viola had been damned proud of it. No high blood pressure or cholesterol or blood sugar, no weight problems or allergies or senilities, none of the afflictions people her age tended to have. Just a few creaky joints and one blasted hip.
My doctor told me that one in four people die within the first year after breaking their hip, she’d told him not long after her own accident. I don’t plan on being that one.
She’d made it a little more than a year.
Alia joined them again, offering his phone. His fingers brushed hers when he took it, but the only thing he noticed was that hers were warm, while his felt so damn cold.
“Your husband will be here in a few minutes,” she said to Mary Ellen. “Can I get you a glass of water or anything?”
“No, thank you. I’ll be fine.” Mary Ellen’s voice wobbled on the last word. “Who found Miss Viola? Today is Molly’s day off.”
“I did.” Discomfort spread across Alia’s face, and she avoided glancing at Landry. “I came to ask her a few more questions.”
Come to question Miss Viola without him present, Landry thought with a scowl. Hoping to get the old lady to let something slip, to trip her into saying something today she wouldn’t normally give voice to, most especially with me right there.