Late on a purple-sky afternoon.
On a day like this one, Emma Lachance almost remembered why she used to think Pointe Judah was the only place she would ever want to call home.
The sun wasn’t quite down yet, but frogs already set up a gruff ruckus and night-scented blooms began to waft musky sweetness on humid air.
She ran hard, harder than she needed to. Anger and hurt could drive you like that, send you pounding over the treacherous, partly finished sidewalks and gravel streets of The Willows, an abandoned retirement development. Concentrating on not turning an ankle helped keep her focused on the anger.
Emma had a husband to divorce.
Emma needed to be angry.
“You’re stupid. And you’re getting fat. I’m going to run for Governor, remember? I intend to win. You’d better make sure you don’t embarrass me, so get hold of yourself, “Orville had told her less than an hour earlier, right before he left for another “important” evening appointment which she could expect to keep him out most of the night.
Orville Lachance, Mayor of Pointe Judah, Arcadia Parish, Louisiana wanted, no, expected his wife to take whatever insults he threw at her in private and keep smiling her adoration of him in public. She had stopped trying to talk to him when he arrived home in the early, dark hours to slide into bed as if he was being thoughtful by not waking her.
Emma didn’t sleep much anymore–something to do with the enemy beside her.
He frightened her, a deep, sickening fear. From the first time he’d let her see him in a violent rage, Emma knew her husband could be a dangerous man. With every smashing blow to a television or pile of dishes, the hate in his face suggested he’d much rather beat her. In the coming weeks she must proceed carefully, gather evidence against him without making him suspicious.
The Mayor who would be Governor would not quietly allow a scandal to interfere with his ambitions.
Squinting into the setting sun, Emma took the next right, downhill, and slowed to a jog. Her cheeks flushed and the light, burning white from pale concrete, turned the way ahead into a blinding landscape of shifting colors. Dark glasses were useless.
An engine, running rough, approached from behind and an ancient Cadillac sailed slowly past. Emma doubted it had any shocks left at all. The white car continued on, weaving slightly, and since she could barely see the heads of the couple up front she figured them to be older. Probably wandered in for a look, thinking the retirement community was up and running.
Whoever came up with the idea and the money to start this development had not done their homework. The closest place to go, Pointe Judah, was a small bayou town that looked the same today as it had when Emma had been growing up. Getting from here to a city with a major downtown or an airport took too long for people with time on their hands and families to visit.
For a few moments she jumped in place, hopped from one foot to the other, shaded her eyes with a hand. Creepers snaked from overgrown lots onto the sidewalk. She ran the route at least once a week because other people didn’t go there.
A ways ahead a blue Honey Bucket stood in the road. The portable latrine hadn’t been there before so maybe they were going to restart building. With vines crawling up their frames and patches of purple, orange and white bougainvillea thrusting through open roof timbers, shells of houses in various stages of construction looked like greenhouses turned inside out.
Another runner approached her, taking the incline with an easy, loping stride. A man. A big, powerful man. Emma could tell that but nothing more and she hesitated in the act of starting off in his direction. If she turned abruptly and dashed back the way she’d come he would think she was running away from him.
She would be.
Regardless of which way she went, he could catch her if he wanted to.
Emma carried on, her pulse ringing in her ears, and her lungs barely expanding. She responded to the man’s, “Hello,” with one of her own. She didn’t look at him when they passed one another.
Could Orville have found out she’d come here? Had he guessed her plans to leave him and decided she should die at some crazy stranger’s hands rather than cause the mayor any inconvenience?
Now there was a paranoid thought.
The woman Finn Duhon just passed could be Emma Balou, but it was a long shot. The Emma Balou he remembered from highschool, the brainy, shy girl who never noticed how much time he spent looking at her, had been tall like the woman runner, and honey blond. That’s where most of the obvious similarities ended, leaving him with only a feeling to go on. He guessed Emma Balou, who had been thin in that not yet grown way, could have matured into the shapely runner.
He shouldn’t look back but he was only a human, in fact he was really human. Finn turned and ran backward, grateful the sun had sunk lower. In a white tank top and shorts, the woman kept going. There surely was something familiar about her. She had obviously overcome any curiosity she had about him–probably because he hadn’t interested her in the first place.
The woman tried to look back at him without breaking stride.
Finn stood still and felt more pleased than he should. Evidently he’d had some effect on her after all.
The lack of female company in his life showed. Time was when he hadn’t been stand-offish around women, or suspicious of their motives for be interested in him. There were good reasons for the change in him.
Emma stopped running. She turned slowly and stared uphill. He’d stopped, too, and shaded his eyes to stare down on her. He walked slowly back toward her. The impulse to run away, shrieking, passed blessedly quickly. The man had stopped because he thought he knew her, just as she thought she knew him.
Walking this time, she retraced her steps until they stood a few yards apart. She took off her glasses, found the handkerchief she carried in a back pocket, and wiped her face thoroughly. Then she rubbed the long bangs that hung wet around her eyes and down the sides of her face.
“Hey,” he said. “Emma Balou, is that you?” He swiped a forearm across his brow and put his fingers through short black hair.
The only people who wouldn’t know she was Mrs. Lachance would be people who no longer lived in town, people who had moved away before she married Orville twelve years earlier.
The stranger’s grin couldn’t be missed, a big, white grin in a tanned face. They drew closer and her hand went to her mouth. “Finn Duhon? Well, I’ll be…Finn Duhon, it is you? I thought you were still in the…”
“Army. Not anymore,” he said and now she could see that his eyes were just as sharply hazel as they ever had been. A good-looking boy had grown into an arresting man. More than that, really. In his face she saw the look of a man who had seen too much for too long. His body testified to hard physical training.
“You were in Special Ops? I think that’s what they call it.”
He nodded. “Yep, that’s it. What’s been goin’ on with you?”
A gust of hot breeze caught the door of the Honey Bucket. It rattled and creaked.
With her hands on her hips, she bent slightly and looked at her well-worn running shoes. “Not a whole lot. I went to Tulane but decided not to stay on after my second year. I’ve got a shop at the old Oakdale Mansion–Poke Around it’s called.” She laughed. “Sandra, the woman who works with me, came up with that because we have a pretty eclectic stock. And folks do come in because they’re not sure what to expect. The shop keeps me busy.”
But it didn’t keep her happy, Finn decided. Sadness, or tension, hung around her eyes and mouth. He saw a wedding ring. So why hadn’t she said she was married?
He would like to tell her she was a beautiful woman but most likely she wouldn’t understand his uncomplicated appreciation for lovely females–usually uncomplicated.
“My mother left me her house,” he said. “I decided to come back and see if this was somewhere I could settle down.”
“Of course.” She turned pink. “Mrs. Duhon passed recently. I wasn’t thinkin’. I’m so sorry for your loss. She was a sweet lady.”
“That, she was. And smart.” He remembered his mother’s face. “I never met a more determined woman, even when her life must have felt ruined.”
Emma nodded and the trouble in her expression wasn’t faked. “I remember,” she said.
She was remembering the circumstances of his father’s death–just months before his mother’s—and Finn didn’t intend to get into that now. “Thank you for askin’. How are your folks?”
“Where are they would be a better question. I think they’re real well but they’re off in one of those RVs, drivin’ all over the country, and Canada. Who would have thought the town doctor and his schoolteacher wife would fall in love with drivin’ from one RV park to the next. My dad says there’s nuthin’ like the smell of bacon cookin’ outside in the mornin’. The two of them like to sit in their lawn chairs and soak up the scenery.”
“Sounds good to me.” He meant each word.
Emma looked into the distance. “Aren’t you going back into stocks . . . somethin’ to do with stocks? I remember hearin’ you shocked your folks when you left your business in New York to go in the service.”
“I was a stock-trader coach.” A successful one, only it had come too easy, been too lucrative, surrounded him with too many people who wanted what he had. “No, ma’am, I’m not goin’ back to that, either. Sometimes you’ve just got to cut loose and find a new way. Could be I’m comin’ close to findin’ it, too.”
Emma met his eyes directly but he felt she’d moved away from their conversation. Her lips parted and she frowned. He expected her to say something but she shook her head instead.
“Are you happy, Emma?” He had no right to ask but he wanted to know.
“Is anyone?” She gave an openly bitter laugh and pushed damp hair back. It had started to curl and he recalled she’d had curls in highschool, lots of curls. The ponytail she wore was as honey blond as he remembered from school. And if anything, her blue eyes were more vivid.
Why not jump in with both feet? “You just startin’ your run, or would you like to get a drink or some coffee somewhere in town? You could catch me up on the local action and be doin’ an old acquaintance a favor.” It was up to her to say yes or no, or that she was married. “I expect you’ve got a car with you.”
“No car. I like long runs.”
The old Caddy that passed him on his way up slowly retraced it’s route.
“These folks must be lost,” Finn said. The car crawled, going slower and slower as it approached. “I guess we must be the most interesting thing they’ve seen around here.” He laughed.
Emma grabbed his arm and pulled him back. The car took a too-wide arc and came straight for them. Correcting just in time, the driver, who peered out through thick glasses, glanced his front fender off the Honey Bucket, setting it rocking. Speeded up, slowed down again, and gradually climbed the hill.
“That’s dangerous,” Emma said, watching the car. “I think I’d like to get some coffee and catch up. You and I weren’t exactly part of any in-crowd so we can look at things from the outside, in, if you know what I mean. But I can’t be long.”
“Good enough. I drove here. My truck’s close.”
The latrine, still swaying a little, snapped open.
The top of a woman’s head burst into view, swung forward revealing a naked back. Light colored hair matted with something dark swung forward. The woman kept falling in slow motion, caught by a shoulder against the inside of the latrine.
Emma choked down a scream and started forward.
Automatically Finn said, “Get back, Emma. I’ll see to this.”
She didn’t move a muscle or avert her eyes–or scream. She gulped air through her mouth and turned chalky white.
“Call 911,” he told her. “Don’t touch anythin’.”
He closed in. The angle of the dying sun hit the inside of the fiber glass door, and the woman’s lard white skin. The pitch dark interior of the latrine didn’t reveal the rest of what had to be a horror picture.
“I don’t have a phone,” Emma said in a too-breathy voice. She ignored his instructions and stood beside him. “We have to see what’s happened.”
“What you don’t see, you don’t have to remember. Please step back. Take my phone.” He slid it from his waist and gave it to her.
“She may still be alive,” Emma said. “I’ll feel her pulse.”
Streamers of something other than blood marred the pale skin. Full breasts, trickled over with the same dark substance, added to her utter helplessness, her vulnerability to any curious eye. “She doesn’t have a pulse,” he said, looking at other telltale signs on the exposed skin. The legs were tucked back. “We shouldn’t risk disturbing any evidence.”
“Why doesn’t she just fall out of there?” Emma walked away from him, made to go closer to the latrine. He only held her wrist a moment before the look she gave warned him to let go.
She leaned to see inside, to see the rest of the body, and held herself there, still except for a silently moving mouth and tears that slid down her face. Emma kept her hands clasped behind her back and began to shake. She turned her back to Finn and threw up, too horrified to care what he thought.
Gasping, holding her handkerchief to her mouth, she said, “Denise,” and dropped to her knees while pressing buttons on the phone. “Denise Steen is dead.” She spoke into the receiver and gave their location. “She’s been murdered.”
Finn leaned over her. The woman’s body unraveled inch by inch from the grotesque pose in which it had been left. Her left hand had been clamped under her on the toilet seat. Her own weight on top kept her from just falling forward–until the latrine started rocking. Whatever had drizzled over head and body, also streamed down her legs. “Looks like chocolate syrup,” he said.
“No,” Emma whispered when Finn stepped back to keep away from the gradually sliding body. “She’s so decent. Who would do this to her?” The dead woman jerked against her own hand, thudded to the floor and came to rest in a twisted sitting position just inside the door.
“It’s so sick,” Emma said, pointing to an obscenely red cocktail cherry in the corpse’s navel.