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Even Mother Nature hated Lagniappe, Louisiana.
Ominous fall storm clouds hung low in the sky.A bright spear of lightning flickered across the sky, then the earth trembledpositives and negatives of nature colliding.
The glass doors to the parish hospital rattled. Alyssa LeBlanc darted into the old building, drenched and shivering. Why hadn't she thought to bring her umbrella? The smell of disinfectant and illness assaulted her senses and memories. She almost gagged. Her heels tapping briskly, she made her way to the nurses' station. She imagined death dogging her every step.
"Pardon me, what room is Marie LeBlanc in?"
The nurse glanced over the counter, eyes hardening and the corners of her mouth slicing down. "Visiting hours are long over." Her gaze drifted over Alyssa, disapproval lining her plump face as she took in Alyssa's chic business slacks and silk blouse.
Alyssa straightened her shoulders, despite the burning cramp caused from six hours behind the wheel. "I was calledshe's my grandmother." She offered a shaky smile. Maybe Nurse Ratched would have a heart.
Wonder of wonders, her tactic worked. The older woman let out a heavy sigh and softened her expression. "Room 112, just down the hall to the right. You can only see her for a minute."
"Merci." Alyssa turned on her four-inch heels and strode down the hall. Not even back for an hour and already falling into the old speech patterns. She shook her head. No, she wouldn't let Lagniappe smother her again. Not when she had a hot assignment that could launch her career waiting back home.
Halting at the door of Room 112, she reached in her pocket for her lip balm. She applied a thick coat, paying specialattention to the burning scar just on the edge of her lower lip, and slid the tube back into the pocket of her slacks before pushing open the door.
Light spilled into the darkened room from the hall behind her. Only a small beam glowed over the hospital bed. Two machines on either sidetheir beeps low and hypnoticilluminated the patient lying flat. Alyssa's legs moved as if the floor were swampland. Her heartbeat pounded in her throat as she studied the frail form lying so still. Why hadn't her sister called sooner? Their grandmother looked as if she were knocking on death's door.
A strange feeling rose within her, enveloping her like lichen on bayou trees. A sense of warning, of caution. She shook off the sensation and picked her way across the room on tiptoe. The metal railing felt cold to her touch, but no chillier than the regret seeping into her spirit. "Oh, Grandmere."
Her grandmother's eyes flicked open.
Had she spoken aloud? "Alyssa, ma chère, is that you?" Grandmere lifted a gnarled hand. "Oui." She took her grandmother's hand in her own. When had Grandmere's skin turned as thin as parchment?
"I came as soon as CoCo called."
"I told her not to. I'm fine. This is just a little episode." The pale skin beneath the tan from the outdoors told a different story. Alyssa swallowed. "I'm glad she did." Her voice hitched, but maybe Grandmere wouldn't notice.
"Ma chère, I'm well. She shouldn't have bothered you. I know you're busy with your paper." The coloring wasn't the only thing off about Grandmerethose mere three sentences stole her breath. She shifted on the bed, a wheezing noise hissing from her chest. Grandmere reached for the rail with her free hand, the one with an IV.
Alyssa helped lift her grandmother into a sitting position, her head and her heart warring. She needed to pursue her career, and she had. She'd worked her way up from obits and social events to investigative reporter. Her mother had been the star photojournalist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. One day, Alyssa would nab the position they'd denied her there twice. But seeing her grandmother like this
A cough racked her grandmother's body, bouncing off the drab white walls and filling Alyssa with foreboding.
"I'm okay." Grandmere slumped against the pillows, her face ashen. A thin layer of sweat beaded her upper lip.
Grabbing a tissue from the box on the bedside table, Alyssa swallowed back the guilt. She dabbed her grand-mother's face. Grandmere rewarded her with a soft smile, but didn't open her eyes. "I just lose my breath oft times."
"It's okay." She tossed the tissue into the bedside trash can and noticed several other wads. "When does your doctor make rounds in the morning?" She certainly had a couple of issues to discuss with him regarding her grandmother's condition.
"Now you sound like CoCo, ma chère. He'll be here around nine-ish."
The door whooshed open, and a nurse stood with her hands on her ample hips. "You have to leave now. My patient needs her rest." She made her way to the bed. Her hands smoothed the covers over Grandmere before plumping the pillows.
Alyssa planted a short kiss on her grandmother's temple. "I'll see you in the morning."
"You be careful now, chère. I've been listening to the thunder. The spirits aren't too happy."
Those spirits again. Here Grandmere lay in the hospital following a mild heart attack, supposedly, and concern over unhappy spirits filled her thoughts. If she had such a connection with the spirits, why hadn't they warned her about her ailing health? Some things never changed, but now wasn't the time or place to get into that discussion. Alyssa nodded and backed out of the room.
She pressed against the wall, cold seeping into her skin through her soaked blouse. She'd had no idea Grand-mere was so bad off when CoCo had called this morning. If she had, she wouldn't have lingered at the paper, begging her editor not to give the new juicy assignment to her rival. Alyssa shook her head and strode toward the parking lot. No matter that she'd dallied. She'd make the most of her time with Grandmere this weekend before getting back to work in Shreveport on Monday.
Darkness lurked over the parking lot, and the rain came down in sheets. Something chilly hung in the air tonight, even though South Louisiana stayed warm through September. Alyssa berated herself for forgetting her umbrella. Rushing to the car, she noted that four streetlamps were out. Figured. Lagniappe couldn't even change their light bulbs. No big surprise. She sank into the driver's seat of her Honda, resting her forehead on the steering wheel. Droplets plopped onto her lap.
What had she let herself in for, coming back? Hadn't she vowed not to return? Cajun country had stolen everything near and dear to her more than a decade agoher parents, her home in New Orleans, her normal life. She'd been ridiculed because of her grandmother and older sister, making her social life, if it could even be called that, miserable.
Only the rain pounding against the windshield answered her. She cranked the engine, flipped the defroster on high, and jerked the car into gear. Hopefully, CoCo would have a nice pot of coffee simmering at the house.
She steered onto the main road leading out of town. Town in the same breath as Lagniappe? Now that was an oxymoron. Alyssa shoved down her thoughts. She clicked on the radio, found a jazz station and turned up the volume. She only had to stick it out for a weekend. She'd see Grandmere safely back home before heading back to Shreveport. Only three days. She could survive this.
The wipers squeaked against the windshield, seeming to keep time with the music on the radio. Alyssa hunched over the steering wheel. Up ahead lay the turnoff to the LeBlanc homestead. She slowly applied her brakes, but hit a slick spot of mud. The car slid toward a ditch. The cypress trees with Spanish moss hanging low blurred as the car spun. She jerked the wheel. Overcorrected, the car gyrated. She pressed the brakes, hoping the antilocks would kick in, but the car picked up momentum and headed for the gully. With a jar, her car landed nose first in the ditch. The Honda's engine died and the headlights went dim. Not a total lossthe jazz still blared from the speakers.
Now what? She turned off the radio, twisted the key to restart the car and pumped the accelerator. Nothing but a whirring noise sounded over the din of the rain. She pressed the lights off. No sense wasting her battery. Digging around in the console, she located her cell phone and flipped it open. One bar. She punched in her sister's number, but the call wouldn't go through. SERVICE NOT AVAILABLE. Just her luck.
Taillights dotted the darkness not more than fifty yards next to her on the road to the house. Drawing in a breath, she grabbed the door handle and stepped into the driving rain. Ahead, the car's brake lights flicked on. Maybe they'd seen her; maybe they could help. She ran toward the vehicle as fast as she could in her spike heels. The mud sucked at her feet, making popping sounds.
Two figures emerged from the car. Goosebumps pimpled Alyssa's back, and she froze. That odd sense of foreboding she'd experienced at the hospital returned with a vengeance. Something inside screamed Caution! She shivered and slowed her pace, trying to see the figures more clearly through the onslaught of rain.
They struggled to maneuver something big and bulky from the backseat. A voice carried on the wind. "Hurry up, we don't want to be seen." A man's voice, deep and edgy, a voice she'd never forget. Alyssa's insides bunched and she held her breath.
" heavy," a second voice replied, followed by a large grunt.
Alyssa crouched to the side of the road, cold mud covering her shoes. Her heart thumped so loud, surely the men would hear the pounding. They didn't. Whatever they took from the backseat hit the road with a loud thud. The two figures hopped back into the car and sped away. Alyssa tried to make out the license plate, but the rain and the speed of the car blurred the numbers.
When the taillights disappeared from view, Alyssa inched up to the big bag sitting in the middle of the road. Probably trash. Just like the rednecks in this backwoods town. More likely, teens in Daddy's Pontiac. At least that's what she tried to convince herself. She focused on what she recalled. She thought the car had been a Pontiac. Metallic blue, from what she could make out from the brake lights' illumination.
The closer she got, the larger the sack became. The least they could've done was dump the bag on the side of the road so an unsuspecting motorist wouldn't run into the thing.
Alyssa looked up and down the dark road. Not a car in sight to help pull her out of the ditch. No nice, calm driver with a normal voice. Unlike the one that sent shivers tickling her spine.
Soaked to the bone, she'd come this far so she might as well see what they'd dumped. She rushed forward before common sense could make her change her mind, grabbed the end of the black industrial-grade bag and tugged. It didn't budge. Alyssa gripped the edges tighter, but her wet hands slipped. She gave the sack a hard jerk.
She flinched hard, nearly toppling over. Her heart jumped against the back of her throat. Did that bulging bag really moan and move?
Another loud groan.
Oh, mercy sakes alive, they'd dumped a body.A live one! She scratched at the bag, fighting to puncture the material with her nails. Strong stuff, but she kept on clawing, chipping her manicure, until she ripped the sack open. Her stomach bunched into tight knots as she realized the condition of the body. She freed the person's face from the plastic.
She barely recognized the man.After all, it'd been three years, but the red hair gave away his identity. Sheriff Bubba Theriot lay inside, bleeding and battered. His breathing came in short puffs, shallow and labored. She grabbed his wrist and checked his pulsethready and faint.
"Hold on, Sheriff. I'll call for help." She ran to her car, her heels sinking into the marshy mud. Alyssa caught herself on the car door, and fell into the seat. Her hands trembled as she grabbed her cell phone.
Please, let me get reception out here in the boondocks.
Still only one barnot enough to make a call. Alyssa hesitated over the button to the hazard lights. Would the men come back? They had no reason to suspect they'd been observed. Surely they wouldn't be so stupid to return to the scene of the crime. Then again, they had left him alive. What if they decided to come back and make sure he'd died? Right or wrong, she had to do something. She flipped on the hazard lights, grabbed the flashlight from the backseat and headed toward the sheriff, holding her cell phone open.
Just another bar. Just one more.
About ten yards from the sheriff, the phone beeped. She held the display closer to her face. Two bars out of five. Not the best, but she should at least get a 911 call out. Sure enough, the dispatcher answered and asked the nature of her emergency.
"It's the sheriff. His body. I mean, he's still alive, but just barely." Sobs tore from her throat. She fought against them, swallowing hard, but the tears wouldn't be denied. She ran a finger over her scar, which felt hot to her touch.
The dispatcher took down the location before assuring Alyssa help would be there soon.
Alyssa shoved the phone into her pocket with shaking hands and rushed to the sheriff's side. Rain washed the blood from his face. Bruises littered his flesh. Gashes and cuts. Crooked and bleeding nose. His swollen eyes opened and locked on her face. Her gut twisted. This was worse than covering the five-car pileup on I-30 last month.
"D-Don't let th-them get away with it Jacks." His lids closed and his breathing shallowed out even more.
Jacks? Delirium must have set in. She smoothed the hair off his forehead, careful to avoid the deep cuts. Her hands trembled. Who would do such a thing? She glanced over her shoulder, apprehension settling over her as fast as the rain soaking her blouse. Alyssa swallowed and prayed, even though she wasn't sure what to say to the God she visited once a month.
Please let the ambulance get here in time. Don't let this man die. Not while I'm here, God. Not again. Please.