Page 3 of Bayou Hero

There was a certain level of arrogance to anyone who attained the rank of admiral. The admiralty was small and select, theoretically only the best of the best. She could well imagine Jackson believing he was invulnerable, especially in his own home. Alia’s father had a bit of that smugness, but her mother kept it under control.

Jimmy turned up the stairs, and she followed. On the landing halfway up, she stopped to study a portrait. It was an oil and showed the admiral, a mere commander at the time, in his choker whites with his family—wife, son, daughter. Jackson appeared stern but proud, the wife fragile. The daughter, nine, maybe ten years old, stood next to her father and smiled brightly, while the son, almost a teen, looked remote. Withdrawn.

It could be difficult, growing up the only son of an ambitious, hard-ass career officer. It had been tough for Alia at times, being an only child. Such fathers tended to have expectations of their children, and they didn’t take disappointment lightly.

“What about the family? You mentioned the daughter.”

“Mary Ellen. Married to Scott Davison, lives a couple streets over, has two daughters.”

“The son?”

“Jeremiah the third. Goes by Landry, his mama’s maiden name. Works at a bar down in the Quarter and lives above it. Doesn’t visit the old homestead often.”

The esteemed Rear Admiral Jackson’s only son tended bar. Yeah, growing up had definitely been tough for Jeremiah III. “And the mother?”

“Camilla. A bit of a mystery there.”

She waited for him to go on, but he was gazing at the portrait. He’d always had an eye for the ladies, even those old enough to be his own mother, one of the reasons he and Alia were no longer married.

“What’s the mystery?”

“Huh?” He jerked his attention from the painting. “Oh. She hasn’t been seen for three, four weeks—no one’s really sure how long. The admiral told his neighbor she was visiting relatives. His daughter said the same. Gossip says she ran off, alone or with a boyfriend, or that she’s in a private hospital somewhere. They say she never was very strong, and that she drank to get through the times her husband was gone.” After a reflective moment, Jimmy finished. “Maybe it was the times he was home she needed help.”

That was one thing Alia had no experience with. Her father may have worn the silver stars in the family, but her mother was the boss. She had a strength that no three admirals could match and was proud of it. She’d taught Alia to be strong, too—one of Jimmy’s complaints about her. She’d never needed him, he’d said, and he was probably right.

“Where do you learn all these things?” she asked as they started up the last section of stairs.

“Hey, I’m a detective. Finding out stuff is what they pay me for.” Then he relented. “As important as Jackson is in navy circles, he’s that and more in New Orleans society, which means the gossip is plentiful. You just have to know who to ask.”

It was easy to find the admiral’s bedroom: it was the one where personnel swarmed, collecting evidence. Alia paused before reaching the doorway, taking quick short breaths through her mouth. Seeing the awful things that one human being could do to another never got any easier.

Two steps took her to the doorway, one more inside. The room was huge: sitting area in front of a fireplace; a delicate writing desk overlooking a front window; a massive bed; a door opening into a bathroom and closet. It was one of Louisiana’s quirks that old houses traditionally lacked closets, but this one was an exception.

The furniture, the art on the walls, the knickknacks on tables, the Middle Eastern rugs—all costly. It was overdone for Alia’s tastes, too cluttered, too much pattern and color and far too rich, but the room looked exactly what it was: a personal space for a wealthy couple in a lavish mansion.

If one could dismiss the blood.

It was a lot of blood, an entire life’s worth. It covered the admiral’s chest, saturated the sheets, soaked the mattress. There were small splatters on the wall, the shade of the lamp on the night table, the pristine white pillowcase on the opposite side of the bed, a few drops on the floor. Blood was slick. It made knives slip in wet grips, often causing killers to cut themselves. Would some of this blood belong to the killer?

Finally she forced herself to focus on the victim. He was a few inches shorter than six feet, broad shouldered, barrel-chested. At one time he’d been solid muscle, but living the good life of the admiralty had put some extra weight on him. His hair was white, thick, and his blue eyes were open, staring sightlessly toward the ceiling. Had his attacker been the last thing he’d seen in life? Had he known him? Had he known the reason for his death?