Cypress Springs, Louisiana Wednesday, March 5, 2003 2:30 p.m.
Avery Chauvin drew her rented SUV to a stop in front of Rauche's Dry Goods store and stepped out. A humid breeze stirred against her damp neck and ruffled her short dark hair as she surveyed Main Street. Rauche's still occupied this coveted corner of Main and First Streets, the Azalea Café still screamed for a coat of paint, Parish Bank hadn't been swallowed by one of the huge banking conglomerates and the town square these establishments all circled was as shady and lovely as ever, the gazebo at its center a startlingly bright white.
Her absence hadn't changed Cypress Springs at all, she thought. How could that be? It was as if the twelve years between now and when she had headed off to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, returning only for holiday breaks, had been a dream. As if her life in Washington, D.C., was a figment of her imagination.
If they had been, her mother would be alive, the massive, unexpected stroke she had suffered eleven years in the future. And her father—
Pain rushed over her. Her head filled with her father's voice, slightly distorted by the answering machine.
"Avery, sweetheart… It's Dad. I was hoping…I need to talk to you. I was hoping—" Pause. "There's something… I'll…try later. Goodbye, pumpkin."
If only she had taken that call. If only she had stopped, just for the time it would have taken to speak with him. Her story could have waited. The congressman who had finally decided to talk could have waited. A couple minutes. A couple minutes that might have changed everything.
Her thoughts raced forward, to the next morning, the call from Buddy Stevens. Family friend. Her dad's lifelong best friend. Cypress Springs' chief of police.
"Avery, it's Buddy. I've got some…some bad news, baby girl. Your dad, he's—"
Dead. Her dad was dead. Between the time her father had called her and the next morning, he had killed himself. Gone into his garage, doused himself with diesel fuel, then lit a match.
How could you do it, Dad? Why did you do it? You didn't even say—
The short scream of a police siren interrupted her thoughts. Avery turned. A West Feliciana Parish sheriff's cruiser rolled up behind her Blazer. An officer stepped out and started toward her.
She recognized the man by his long, lanky frame, the way he moved and held himself. Matt Stevens, childhood friend, high-school sweetheart, the guy she'd left behind to pursue her dream of journalism. She'd seen Matt only a handful of times since then, most recently at her mother's funeral nearly a year ago. Buddy must have told him she was coming.
Avery held up a hand in greeting. Still handsome, she thought, watching him approach. Still the best catch in the parish. Or maybe that title no longer applied; he could be attached now.
He reached her, stopped but didn't smile. "It's good to see you, Avery." She saw herself reflected in his mirrored sunglasses, smaller than any grown woman ought to be, her elfin looks accentuated by her pixie haircut and dark eyes, which were too big for her face.
"It's good to see you, too, Matt."
"Sorry about your dad. I feel real bad about how it all happened. Real bad."
"Thanks, I…I appreciate you and Buddy taking care of Dad's—" Her throat constricted; she pushed on, determined not to fall apart. "Dad's remains," she finished.
"It was the least we could do." Matt looked away, then back, expression somber. "Were you able to reach your cousins in Denver?"
"Yes," she managed, feeling lost. They were all the family she had left—a couple of distant cousins and their families. Everyone else was gone now.
"I loved him, too, Avery. I knew since your mom's death he'd been…struggling, but I still can't believe he did it. I feel like I should have seen how bad off he was. That I should have known."
The tears came then, swamping her. She'd been his daughter. She was the guilty party. The one who should have known.
He reached a hand out. "It's okay to cry, Avery."
"No…I've already—" She cleared her throat, fighting for composure. "I need to arrange a…service. Do the Gallaghers still own—"
"Yes. Danny's taken over for his father. He's expecting your call. Pop told him you were getting in sometime today."
She motioned to the cruiser. "You're out of your jurisdiction."
The sheriff's department handled all the unincorporated areas of the parish. The Cypress Springs Police Department policed the city itself.
One corner of his mouth lifted. "Guilty as charged. I was hanging around, hoping to catch you before you went by the house."
"I was heading there now. I just stopped to…be cause—" She bit the words back; she'd had no real reason for stopping, had simply responded to a whim.
He seemed to understand. "I'll go with you."
"That's really sweet, Matt. But unnecessary."
"I disagree." When she tried to protest more, he cut her off. "It's bad, Avery. I don't think you should see it alone the first time. I'm following you," he finished, voice gruff. "Whether you want me to or not."
Avery held his gaze a moment, then nodded and wordlessly turned and climbed into the rented Blazer. She started up the vehicle and eased back onto Main Street. As she drove the three-quarters of a mile to the old residential section where she had grown up, she took a deep breath.
Her father had chosen the hour of his death well—the middle of the night when his neighbors were less likely to see or smell the fire. He'd used diesel fuel, most probably the arson investigators determined, because unlike gasoline, which burned off vapors, diesel ignited on contact.
A neighbor out for an early-morning jog had discovered the still smoldering garage. After trying to rouse her father, who he'd assumed to be in bed, asleep, he had called the fire department. The state arson investigator had been brought in. They in turn had called the coroner, who'd notified the Cypress Springs Police Department. In the end, her dad had been identified by his dental records.
Neither the autopsy nor CSPD investigation had turned up any indication of foul play. Nor had any known motives for murder materialized: Dr. Phillip Chauvin had been universally liked and respected. The police had officially ruled his death a suicide.
No note. No goodbye.
How could you do it, Dad? Why?
Avery reached her parents' house and turned into the driveway. The lawn of the 1920s-era Acadian needed mowing; the beds weeding; bushes trimming. Although early, the azaleas had begun to bloom. Soon the beds around the house would be a riot of pinks, ranging from icy pale to deep rose.
Her dad had loved his yard. Had spent weekends puttering and planting, primping. It all looked forlorn now, she thought. Overgrown and ignored.
Avery frowned. How long had it been since her father had tended his yard? she wondered. Longer than the two days he had been gone. That was obvious.
Further evidence of the emotional depths to which he had sunk. How could she have missed how depressed he had grown? Why hadn't she sensed something was wrong during their frequent phone conversations?
Matt pulled in behind her. She took a deep breath and climbed out of her vehicle.
He met her, expression grim. "You're certain you're ready for this?"
"Do I have a choice?"
They both knew she didn't and they started up the curving driveway, toward the detached garage. A separate structure, the garage nestled behind the main house. A covered walkway connected the two buildings.
As they neared the structure the smell of the fire grew stronger—not just of wood smoke, but of what she imagined was charred flesh and bone. As they turned the corner of the driveway she saw that a large, irregularly shaped black mark marred the doorway.
"The heat from the fire," Matt explained. "It did more damage inside. Actually, it's a wonder the building didn't come down."
A half-dozen years ago, while working for the Tribune, Avery had been assigned to cover a rash of fires that had plagued the Chicago area. It turned out the arsonist had been the estranged son of a firefighter, looking to punish his old man for kicking him out of the house. Unfortunately, the police hadn't caught him before he'd been responsible for the deaths of six innocent people—one of them an infant.
Avery and Matt reached the garage. She steeled herself for what would come next. She understood how gruesome death by fire was.
Matt led her to the side door. Opened it. They stepped into the building. The smell crashed over her. As did the stark reality of her father's last minutes. She imagined his screams as the flames engulfed him. As his skin began to melt. Avery brought a hand to her mouth, her gaze going to the large char mark on the concrete floor—the spot where her father had burned alive.
His suicide had been an act of not only despair but self-hatred as well.
She began to tremble. Her head grew light, her knees weak. Turning, she ran outside, to the azalea bushes with their burgeoning blossoms. She doubled over, struggling not to throw up. Not to fall apart.
Matt came up behind her. He laid a hand on her back.
Avery squeezed her eyes shut. "How could he do it, Matt?" She looked over her shoulder at him, vision blurred by tears. "It's bad enough that he took his own life, but to do it like that? The pain…it would have been excruciating."
"I don't know what to say," he murmured, tone gentle. "I don't have any answers for you. I wish I did."
She straightened, mustering anger. Denial. "My father loved life. He valued it. He was a doctor, for God's sake. He'd devoted his life to preserving it."
At Matt's silence, she lashed out. "He was proud of himself and the choices he'd made. Proud of how he had lived. The man who did that hated himself. That wasn't my dad." She said it again, tone taking on a desperate edge. "It wasn't, Matt."
"Avery, you haven't been—" He bit the words off and shifted his gaze, expression uncomfortable.
"What, Matt? I haven't been what?"
"Around a lot lately." He must have read the effect of his words in her expression and he caught her hands and held them tightly. "Your dad hadn't been himself for a while. He'd withdrawn, from everybody. Stayed in his house for days. When he went out he didn't speak. Would cross to the other side of the street to avoid conversation."
How could she not have known? "When?" she asked, hurting. "When did this start?"
"I suppose about the time he gave up his practice."
Just after her mother's death.
"Why didn't somebody call me? Why didn't—" She bit the words back and pressed her trembling lips together.
He squeezed her fingers. "It wasn't an overnight thing. At first he just seemed preoccupied. Or like he needed time to grieve. On his own. It wasn't until recently that people began to talk."
Avery turned her gaze to her father's overgrown garden. No wonder, she thought.
"I'm sorry, Avery. We all are."
She swung away from her old friend, working to hold on to her anger. Fighting tears.
She lost the battle.
"Aw, Avery. Geez." Matt went to her, drew her into his arms, against his chest. She leaned into him, burying her face in his shoulder, crying like a baby.
He held her awkwardly. Stiffly. Every so often he patted her shoulder and murmured something comforting, though through her sobs she couldn't make out what.
The intensity of her tears lessened, then stopped. She drew away from him, embarrassed. "Sorry about that. It's…I thought I could handle it."
"Cut yourself some slack, Avery. Frankly, if you could handle it, I'd be a little worried about you."
Tears flooded her eyes once more and she brought her hand to her nose. "I need a tissue. Excuse me."
She headed toward her car, aware of him following. There, she rummaged in her purse, coming up with a rumpled Kleenex. She blew her nose, dabbed at her eyes, then faced him once more. "How could I not have known how bad off he was? Am I that self-involved?"
"None of us knew," he said gently. "And we saw him every day."
"But I was his daughter. I should have been able to tell, should have heard it in his voice. In what he said. Or didn't say."
"It's not your fault, Avery."
"No?" She realized her hands were shaking and slipped them into her pockets. "But I can't help wondering, if I had stayed in Cypress Springs, would he be alive today? If I'd given up my career and stayed after Mom's death, would he have staved off the depression that caused him to do…this? If I had simply picked up the pho—"
She swallowed the words, unable to speak them aloud. She met his gaze. "It hurts so much."
"Don't do this to yourself. You can't go back."
"I can't, can I?" She winced at the bitterness in her voice. "I loved my dad more than anyone in the world, yet I only came home a handful of times in all the years since college. Even after Mom died so suddenly and so horribly, leaving so much unresolved between us. That should have been a wake-up call, but it wasn't."
He didn't respond and she continued. "I've got to live with that, don't I?"
"No," he corrected. "You have to learn from it. It's where you go from here that counts now. Not where you've been."
A group of teenagers barreled by in a pickup truck, their raucous laughter interrupting the charged moment. The pickup was followed by another group of teenagers, these in a bright-yellow convertible, top down.
Avery glanced at her watch. Three-thirty. The high school let out the same time as it had all those years ago.
Funny how some things could change so dramatically and others not at all.
"I should get back to work. You going to be okay?"
She nodded. "Thanks for baby-sitting me."
"No thanks necessary." He started for the car, then stopped and looked back at her. "I almost forgot, Mom and Dad are expecting you for dinner tonight."
"Tonight? But I just got in."
"Exactly. No way are Mom and Dad going to let you spend your first night home alone."
"You're not in the big city anymore, Avery. Here, people take care of each other. Besides, you're family."
Home. Family. At that moment nothing sounded better than that. "I'll be there. They still live at the ranch?" she asked, using the nickname they had given the Stevenses' sprawling ranch-style home.
"Of course. Status quo is something you can count on in Cypress Springs." He crossed to his vehicle, opened the door and looked back at her. "Is six too early?"
"It'll be perfect."
"Great." He climbed into the cruiser, started it and began backing up. Halfway down the driveway he stopped and lowered his window. "Hunter's back home," he called. "I thought you might want to know."