Page 59 of Bayou Hero

“She never stopped looking out for you, did she?” Obviously, it was Miss Viola who helped him out of the nightmare Jeremiah the self-centered pervert had put him in. All the love and support, emotional and financial, she’d given him...

“No, she didn’t.” He pulled out a few more weeds, wiped off the mud on his shorts, then plopped on his butt on the mulched path.

“Like I said, I don’t know how it started or how long it had been going on. Two of the men—Steven Anderson and Gary Grayson—are cousins, and word was, they’d been messing with their younger cousins for years.”

Alia forced a breath, forced her emotions back and drew on the analytical part of herself she relied on. Though Alia-the-woman was still there, still reeling, Alia-the-investigator was taking charge.

“What is the gender breakdown of boys to girls among the five families?”

“Mary Ellen and me. Jeffrey has two sisters. Anderson had one daughter, and Grayson had two. Marco Gaudette had three girls and one boy.”

Poor kids, betrayed by the people they should have trusted most. If that was the reason for the murders, and she felt sure it was, how many potential suspects were there? Three remaining pervs, four wives, twelve victims and anyone they’d confided in. Boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses, counselors, cops, priests or ministers. Even friends had been known to seek vengeance before.

“What about the wives? What did they know?” Alia lowered her voice. “What did Camilla know?”

Landry rested his wrists on his knees and held her gaze. “I don’t know. But as far as I can recall, her fondness for mainlining gin started about the time of that birthday. We never talked about it. When I could pretend it never happened, I did. The closest we came to discussing it was when I asked her to leave him. He’d just left town, and I thought we could disappear while he was gone. All she had to say was yes, but instead she poured another drink.”

It had been a hell of a life: abuse, pain, disillusionment and a mother who did nothing to help.

Alia wasn’t an overly emotional person. She always related to her victims’ suffering, but in a cool, detached manner. Right now, just for an instant, she wanted to put her head down and cry. She wanted to wrap her arms around her mom and dad and thank them profusely for being such great parents. More than that, she wanted to wrap her arms around Landry and hold him until everything was all right.

Things might never be all right again for him and the other kids involved.

God, she felt naive. She knew it happened. Her first juvenile sex crimes case had been one too many. She knew sometimes fathers did horrible things and sometimes mothers let them. Hell, she knew sometimes those roles were reversed.

But God in heaven, she didn’t, couldn’t, understand it. Any person standing by when a child was abused boggled her mind. A parent, the person who gave that child life, whose blood ran through his veins, knowing and doing nothing...

Camilla Jackson had got no more than she deserved.

And Alia wished she could be naive again.

“How old was Mary Ellen when she was included?” she asked when she was sure her voice would be steady.

“Ten. They had standards, you know.” He spit out the word.

“Does she remember?”

Her question surprised him, his eyes widening slightly. After a moment, he shrugged. “I don’t know. I always thought so. I mean, how do you forget something like that? But we’ve never talked about it, ever. Not even before I moved out.”

Kids could forget something like that. They could push it into the back of their minds, bury it deep beneath trauma and fear and pain and denial. They could go on with life, function normally, appear to have a loving relationship with their abuser. As emotionally fragile as Mary Ellen was, Alia was pretty sure that was exactly what she’d done. It had been her only way to survive.

“What about the other kids? Do you know what happened to any of them?”

He scrubbed his jaw with one hand. The muscles there had tightened before the conversation began and weren’t showing signs of relaxing anytime soon. “One of the Wallace daughters is married. The other’s been divorced a few times. Anderson’s daughter killed herself when she was eighteen. Mary Ellen had just come back from boarding school, and it hit her really hard. Surprising, given that outside the family things, they hadn’t been friends. Mary Ellen started boarding school when she was thirteen, stayed until graduation.”

More of Miss Viola’s doing, Alia supposed. She couldn’t have helped Landry escape and left Mary Ellen to endure alone.

Maybe Mary Ellen had related to the girl’s decision. Maybe she’d found herself contemplating the same decision.