Even for an experienced NCIS agent like Alia Kingsley, the murder scene is particularly gruesome. Someone killed in a fit of rage. Being the long-estranged son of the deceased, Landry Jackson quickly becomes a person of interest. But does Landry loathe his father as much as the feds suspect?
It's clear to Alia that Landry Jackson has secrets, but his hatred for his father isn't one of them. Alia feels sure Landry isn't the killer, but once more family members start dying, she's forced to question herself. What if the fierce attraction between her and Landry has compromised Alia's instincts?
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The Greek Revival mansion sat a hundred feet back from Saint Charles Avenue, separated from the street by a six-foot-tall wrought iron fence. The house was stately, the lawn perfectly manicured and the very air around it smelled sweeter, or so it seemed to Alia Kings-ley as she snagged a few feet of curb space and climbed out of her car.
The only things more out of place than her in New Orleans's Garden District this summer morning were the vehicles that overflowed the mansion's brick-paved drive and clogged the side street. New Orleans Police Department cars, marked and unmarked; an ambulance, its paramedics standing idle; a van from the coroner's office; sedans bearing US Government tags; and trucks carrying the logos of the local media outlets.
Yellow crime-scene tape kept the reporters and curious neighbors at bay. Alia flashed her credentials to the young cop standing guard at the end of the drive, and he lifted the tape so she could pass. "Who's in charge?"
"Not me. I'm crowd control," he said with a shrug. "Ask one of the detectives."
With a nod, she followed the drive up a slight incline. Another uniformed officer stood guard at the back door of the house. A short distance away, a sailor, his face as colorless as his summer whites, sat at a patio table, a handkerchief pressed to his mouth. He was talking to Jimmy DiBiase, college football star turned cop and, more importantly in her opinion, if not his, her ex-husband.
This wasn't a good start to her week.
When Jimmy saw her, he left the table and met her halfway. "I was hopin' you'd catch this."
"Yeah, we work so well together," she said drily.
"We did a lot of things good together."
"Are you sure that was you and me, or maybe one of your girlfriends?"
He had the grace to flush at that, though if he truly felt any regret it didn't show in his voice. "Aw, sweet pea, we ain't ever gonna work things out if you don't give ole Jimmy a break." With that Southern drawl and broad grin of his, he managed to make the two of them working things out sound almost reasonable. Lucky for her, at 8:10 a.m. without nearly enough caffeine in her system, reasonable didn't put in an appearance on her list of things to be.
She gestured to the mansion behind him. "Whose house?"
"You don't know?"
Obviously someone with money and, considering the official navy vehicle in the driveway and the kid in uniform, someone with enough rank to rate a driver. But she didn't start her days, or her cases, making guesses, so she waited for Jimmy to tell her. He did so with great pleasure.
"Honey, you are a special guest at the family home of Rear Admiral Jeremiah Jackson Junior."
She knew the name, of course. A special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service couldn't spend more than a day at the New Orleans office without hearing Admiral Jackson mentioned. He was nothing less than a legendtough as nails, hard-line, a leftover from the days when being an officer and a gentleman meant something. His career had been long and illustrious, his navy commands as shipshape as any and more than most.
"Is he the victim?" she asked, gazing at the back of the house. Windows marched across each of three stories in perfect symmetry. The admiral liked order in his job as well as his home. She knew his type well. Her own father, Rear Admiral Charles Kingsley, Retired, was just like him.
"Him. His housekeeper. Her daughter. The gardener."
Alia's breath caught in her chest. "How old was the daughter?"
"Mid-twenties. Had Down syndrome."
Four homicides. The spotlight would be shining brightly on this case. "Did the housekeeper live in?"
"Had quarters right there." He nodded toward the nearest corner of the house.
"And the gardener? Did he live here, too?"
"She. No. She just liked to get an early start before the day got too hot."
Alia shifted her gaze to the lawn. The grass was clipped, the sidewalks, driveway and beds neatly edged. Flowers bloomed profusely, and the pots spaced evenly across the patio contained plantings so healthy they looked fake. The gardener's dedication to her job had been admirable though it had cost her her life.
Finally she looked at Jimmy again and asked the important question. "How did they die?"
"Stabbed. Once each on the employees, in the chest. The gardener also suffered a blow to the head. We figure she walked in and surprised the killer, so he knocked her out, then killed her. The old woman was found in bed, the daughter on the floor beside her bed."
"And the admiral?"
Jimmy hesitated. "In his bed. When I came out to talk to the driver, the ME's investigator was still counting the wounds. He was up to twenty-seven."
Three people efficiently killed and one overkilled. It was safe to assume he'd been the real target, and the others had merely been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jeez, how could being asleep in your own bed be the wrong place at the wrong time?
"You wanna go in?"
She could think of a hundred things she'd rather do, but she nodded and followed him to the back door, where the officer standing guard offered them both gloves and protective booties. The door was an old-fashioned one made of wood with a nine-paned window looking out. The pane closest to the knob was broken out.
The door opened into a space that did double duty as mudroom and laundry room, and then into a kitchen. The house might be two hundred years old, but the kitchen was definitely of the twenty-first century. Appliances, surfaces, cabinetsall were top-of-the-line and pricey. The commercial-grade stove and the refrigerator alone cost more than everything in her little house combined.
The smell of coffee coming from the maker on the countertop made her mouth water. "Is that on a timer?"
"Yeah." It was a crime scene tech who answered. "No help there."
Jimmy came to a stop beside the body facedown on the kitchen floor. "Constance Marks, age twenty-four. That's her blue pickup out there. Self-employed, worked for the admiral, his daughter and some of their friends."
Constance was slim and tanned, wore shorts with a lot of pockets and sneakers with good support, and her blond hair was matted with blood on the crown. More blood stained her shirt and seeped onto the cream-and-white tile of the floor. All that outdoor work had given her solid muscles, which hadn't mattered a damn in the end.
"The servants' quarters are down here." Jimmy led the way through a door between the refrigerator and the wine cooler. Several doors opened off the hallwaya pantry, a closetand at the end was a living room, kitchen, two bedrooms, and a bath. The rooms were small, the furnishings good but worn. Judging by the kitchen, no expense had been spared in the main house, while none had been wasted here.
Crime Scene Unit techs were at work in both bedrooms. The smells of blood and bodily waste were strong in the air, competing with the scents of furniture polish and antiseptic cleaner. Jimmy stopped in the doorway on the right. "Laura Owen. She put up a strugglebroke the lamp on the nightstand and knocked a pillow off the bed. She has defensive wounds on her hands."
Laura lay on her side, a pair of thick-lensed glasses broken next to her. She was short, chubby and her face bore the distinctive features of Down syndrome. Her nightgown was white cotton, sleeveless, covered with pastel bunnies, and a ragged stuffed rabbit lay on the floor near her, its floppy ear just touching the blood.
"What kind of guy kills a mentally disabled kid just for being here?" Jimmy asked with a shake of his head.
"You think a low IQ should be a disqualifying condition for murder?" The CSU techs snickered. "Then you'd be safe, wouldn't you?"
Alia turned across the hall to the other bedroom, and Jimmy followed her. "Wilma Owen. Killed in her sleep. No defensive wounds."
Wilma Owen was in her late sixties, maybe early seventies, her hair white, her face bearing the lines of long life and troubles. If not for the blood that turned much of her bedding red, she would appear peacefully asleep.
Alia stepped back as two ME's investigators came in with body bags, then she and Jimmy returned the way they'd come. "Any sign of forced entry besides the broken glass in the rear door?"
"No. And that lock's not double-keyed, so someone could get in there easily."
They walked through a swinging door into the formal dining room, filled with antiques. Jeremiah Jackson might have spent his life serving his country, but there'd been no need. His ancestors had amassed a fortune before the Civil War and had been among the few to hold onto it postwar. Jeremiah could have lived in luxury without ever working a day.
First question of a homicide investigation: who stood to benefit from the victim's death?
They left the dining room for a broad hallway, easily bigger than some of the rooms. The rugs underfoot were old and valuable, the furniture costly, the art objects rare. And the man who'd owned it all had worked seventy and eighty-hour weeks, deploying for months at a time, missing important family events, being an absentee husband and father for thirty years.
As they approached the elaborate front door, she gestured toward the alarm keypad nearby. The light glowed green. "Was the alarm set?"
"We're guessing not. You know how many people invest in fancy alarm systems, then not use them. Somebody like Jackson probably thought he was above common crime."
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 familywife, 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."
"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 weeksno 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, tooone 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 rugsall 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?
"The splatter is cast-off from the knife." Jimmy gestured to the deadly blade still sticking out of Jackson's chest. "It's a butcher knife from downstairs."
"Time of death?"
"About 5:00 a.m., best guess. We'll know more when we get him on the table," answered the coroner's investigator. "He was likely asleep. Didn't even get his hands up to defend himself."
"So someone comes here, breaks in without a weapon and kills four people?" What's wrong with this picture? It wasn't a burglary gone wrongtoo many small items of great value left in place. It wasn't a planned murder. No one on a mission to kill would come without a weapon. That left a crime of passion or a killer too disorganized to plan. A killer with serious psychological problems. "Is anything obvious missing?"
"Don't know," Jimmy said. "The daughter's going to come over tomorrow, after the bodies have been removed, and take a look around. She's here four, five times a week according to the neighbor."
He gestured to the door, and she went back into the broad hallway.
"Remember when you served me with divorce papers, you said that was the end of us?" He grinned that big ole grin. "Guess you were wrong about that. Sweet pea, we're gonna be working this case together. You're gonna be my partner."