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Indigo, Louisiana, present day
"Hurry, Cecily," Yvonne Valois cautioned her daughter in the Cajun French that was her first language. "We don't have all day for this." From her seat at the late Maude Picard's kitchen table, she could see the comings and goings of the three other women who moved around the century-old shotgun-style house.
"Mother, lower your voiceyou're in a house of death," Cecily Boudreaux admonished without much hope of being attended to. She pulled out yet another drawer stuffed full of gadgets and gizmos and odd bits and pieces of mismatched silver. Her mother had spent seventy-five years ordering people around in that tone of voice. She wasn't going to stop today just because her grandson, Indigo's Chief of Police, had found her old friend slumped over dead in her living room.
"Why not speak as I wish? Maude's beyond caring and Marie's as lazy as she can hold together. She'll be all day if I don't get her attention."
"Shh, she'll hear you and it will take the rest of the afternoon to coax her out of her pout."
Yvonne firmed her lips but said no more as Marie Lesatz chose that moment to enter the room. She was a small-boned woman with short dark hair and dark eyes, several years past her fiftieth birthday.
"Will this do?" The tall, black woman following Marie moved forward unhurriedly. At sixty-five Estelle Jefferson was a decade older than Cecily and Marie. She and her husband Willis owned the Blue Moon Diner, and served the best mix of Cajun and Creole favorites for miles around. She held up a navy-blue flowered dress. "I always liked Maude in this dress."
"It's the only halfwaydecent thing in her closet." Marie's tone was acid as she dropped onto the ladderback chair beside Yvonne.
Yvonne switched to English now that she and Cecily were no longer alone. Marie's Cajun was limited and Estelle spoke no French at all. "I always thought she looked better in her gray silk."
"If you're not satisfied with the dress I picked out, you go look for the gray silk. I'm not rooting through a dead woman's closet anymore. Especially that one." Marie gestured over her shoulder toward Maude's bedroom. "It's stuffed full of clothes. Maude never threw anything away, you know that."
You certainly ought to know about stuffed closets, Cecily thought with a spurt of annoyance. Marie owned more clothes than any other woman in Indigo, and kept buying them every chance she got whether she could afford them or not.
Marie caught her eye, obviously reading her thoughts, and pushed up her chin in defiance. Marie hadbeen Cecily's childhood friend, but Marie was also her son's ex-mother-in-law, and that's where the problem lay. Indigo was too small a town for Cecily and Marie to be at each other's throats. Cecily swallowed her pique. "The navy will do just fine," she said.
"I even went through her underwear drawer, God forgive me." Marie made the sign of the cross. "Nothing there is fit for a vendre de maison. And no, I didn't come across any keys," she added before Cecily could ask.
"There's far too much stuff here for a garage sale," Yvonne decreed. Sophie Clarkson will have to call in an auctioneer. Anyway, we're not responsible for selling off Maude's possessions. That's for Sophie to decide. She's the heir. But Maude did let things go these last few years. What a mess." All four women looked around as though they could see through walls into the other small, overcrowded rooms, stuffed with antiques, knickknacks and fatras, just plain junk.
Maude Picard, owner of Past Perfect antique shop, had been their friend and the de facto leader of their group. Smuggling ring, Cecily corrected herself with a wince. Her mother and the others weren't just the Lagniappe Ladies, who met a couple of times a month to play cards or go out to dinnera kind of homegrown version of the Red Hat Ladies whose name meant "a little something extra." The Lagniappe Ladies were criminals, plain and simple. And their latest shipment of illegal prescription drugs from Canada was locked up somewhere in Maude's shop.
"I've never seen so much junk in my life," Estelle agreed as she laid the blue dress over the back of a chair."I'm going back for shoes and her under things. It's not right she should meet the Almighty not wearing her underwear. And then I need to get on home. Willis wasn't feeling too well when I left. He took a pain pill but I want him off his feet and he won't do that if I'm not there to hound him." Willis Jefferson had been diagnosed with lung cancer two years earlier. He was taking an experimental anti-cancer drug that was prohibitively expensive and difficult to obtainand his next dose was sitting beyond reach in the opera house along with all the rest of their shipment.
"You go ahead and leave any time you want," Yvonne said. "What about her jewelry, Marie? What did you pick?"
"I found these on top of her dresser." She dropped a pearl necklace and matching earrings into Yvonne's outstretched hand. "I'm not going through her jewelry box and then have that snooty goddaughter of hers show up from Houston and accuse us all of swiping something." She folded her arms across her chest. Marie had gone from frowning to pouting, just as Cecily had predicted. "And I think she'd be happier in her housecoat and slippers," she muttered under her breath.
Yvonne gave Marie a hard look. "We're not laying her to rest in her robe and slippers like swamp trash. The pearls will do fine."
Before the conversation could deteriorate further, Cecily spied a wooden cheese box on top of Maude's old round-shouldered Frigidaire and lifted it gingerly down. Two sets of keys glinted back at her. She held herbreath. Were they the ones they'd been searching for? "Mama, look." She held them up. "Do you suppose?"
"They don't look like deadbolt keys to me," Marie said before Yvonne could respond, squinting to bring the keys into focus. "They look more like lockbox keys, or some such."
"I'm afraid she's right. You'd better leave them where they are. Maude may have left instructions about them for Sophie, although I doubt it, as forgetful as she's been the last few months." Yvonne rose heavily from the chair. She looked every day of her age this morning. Maude Picard had been her friend for many years. Although her health had been failing slowly, her sudden death had come as a shock to all of them, but especially to Yvonne.
"Alain found her slumped in the chair by the door," Cecily mused. "She was obviously leaving to open the shop when she felt the stroke coming on."
"Then her keys to both the house and the store were most likely in her purse and are still there," Yvonne suggested.
"Alain took her purse," Marie said. She was on the Indigo emergency squad and had responded to the 911 call. It was Marie who had informed the other Lagniappe Ladies of the sad event. "He'll keep everything at the jail until Sophie arrives, I bet. We'll have to think of some other way to get into Past Perfect."
Cecily could feel a headache starting to gather behind her eyes. She wanted to get this sad task over with so she could sit down and put her feet up for twenty minutes before Guy and Dana got home fromschool and started begging for snacks and whining about doing homework. She loved Alain and his children, loved having them live with her to keep her from rattling around in her big old house. But some days she just wanted to be alone for a while. "Outside of breaking and entering, I don't know how we'll manage to get our hands on them."
Yvonne gave a short, sharp nod. "If that's what it takes to get our property back without Alain knowing about it, then that's what we'll do."
ALAIN BOUDREAUX cruised by Maude Picard's place at a slow crawl. It was a few minutes past one oâ€™clock and both his mother's and ex-mother-in-law's cars were still parked in the crushed-shell driveway that paralleled the long, narrow house. Tidying up, he supposed, cleaning perishables out of the fridge, laundering sheets for the guest room, sweeping, dusting a little. It was the kind of thing people did for each other in a place like Indigo. Especially when the dearly departed had no family of her own, as in Maude's case. Except for her goddaughter, of course. Sophie Clarkson. Alain tried to remember the last time he'd seen her. Had to be four, maybe even five years back.
A fleeting image of a pretty young girl darted into his thoughts. Sophie as she'd been the summer he'd turned nineteen and she'd come to spend a few weeks with Maude: blue-gray eyes, softly curling blond hair, a smile that started out slow and sweet then turned into heat and flame. He'd fallen head over heels in love with her that summer but it hadn't lasted. Couldn't last. Theywere from two different worlds. His roots were planted deep in the rich bayou soil of Indigo Parish. She was Houston oil money, trust-fund/country-club rich. He'd broken their relationship off shortly after she went off to college, and though she'd been upset, he'd known it was the right thing to do. They'd hardly seen each other since, except for the summer before his daughter, Dana, was born. Then, for one short week, they'd been something more. And all hell had broken loose.
Dredging up memories of Sophie Clarkson wasn't going to do anything but rile him up so he changed the focus of his thoughts. He'd better stop and see if everything was all right with the Lagniappe Ladies. Maude was the first of their group to die. It had to be upsetting for them, especially his mamÃ¨re, who had been Maude's best friend for as long as he could remember.
He pulled the three-year-old Ford Explorer to the curb in front of Maude's house. The town council had scored the SUV from a federal grant that funneled drug dealers' confiscated vehicles to rural police departments. It was a sweet ride, with all the bells and whistles, and sure beat the road-weary sedan he'd been driving for the past two years since he became Indigo's Chief of Police, head of its eight-man department three full-time officers and five part-timers who filled in on weekends and holidays.
Most of the time his small force was more than adequate for the problems he faced in a town the size of Indigo: animal calls, public intoxication, more domestic violence than he'd like and once in a while an old-timer out in the boonies selling a little too muchmoonshine from his homemade still. But not a lot of drugs, at least not any more than anywhere else these days, and damned near no violent crime at all. He liked that. Indigo was only a couple of hoursâ€™ driving time from New Orleans, but it was a world away from the nonstop crime and violence he'd experienced in his five years on the New Orleans PD, and he was glad of it.