Authors: Iris Johansen
Table of Contents
Sarah Bayou, Louisiana
The flatboat glided slowly through the bayou.
Too slowly, Jules Hebert thought tensely. He had deliberately chosen a flatboat rather than a motorboat because it would be less obtrusive at this time of night, but he had not counted on this case of nerves.
Keep calm. The church was just up ahead.
“It will be fine, Jules,” Etienne called softly as he wielded the oars. “You worry too much.”
And his brother, Etienne, didn’t worry enough, Jules thought in despair. Ever since childhood it had been Jules who was the serious one, the one who had to accept the responsibility while Etienne ambled along through life with endearing blitheness. “You arranged for the men to be waiting at the church?”
“And you told them nothing?”
“Only that they would be paid well for the work. And I parked the motorboat to bring them where you told me to.”
“It will all go very easily.” Etienne smiled. “I promise you, Jules. Would I let you down?”
Not intentionally. The affection between them was too strong. They had been through too much together. “No offense. Just asking, little brother.” Jules stiffened as he saw the dark looming silhouette of the ancient stone church in the faint moonlight as they rounded the corner. It had been deserted for over ten years and exuded dampness and decay. His gaze flew to the sparsely scattered plantation houses on either side of the bayou.
No one. No sign of anyone stirring.
“I told you,” Etienne said. “Luck is with us. How could it be otherwise? Fortune is always on the side of the right.”
That had not been Jules’s experience, but he wouldn’t argue with Etienne. Not tonight.
Jules jumped out of the boat as they reached the landing, and the four men Etienne had hired streamed onto the boat.
“Be careful with it,” Jules said. “For God’s sake, don’t drop it.”
“I’ll help them.” Etienne leaped forward. “Christ, it’s heavy.” He put his massive shoulder beneath one corner. “On the count of three.”
With great care they lifted the huge black coffin onto the landing.
Eve Duncan woke with a start, her heart pounding.
“What is it?” Joe Quinn asked drowsily. “Something wrong?”
“No.” Eve swung her feet to the floor. “I just had a bad dream. I think I’ll get a glass of water.” She moved to the bathroom. “Go back to sleep.”
Good heavens, she was actually shaking. How stupid could she get? She splashed water on her face and took a few sips of water before going back into the bedroom.
The lamp on the nightstand was on and Joe was sitting up in bed. “I told you to go back to sleep.”
“I don’t want to go to sleep. Come here.”
She went into his arms and cuddled close. Safety. Love. Joe. “Want to make love?”
“The thought occurred to me. Maybe later. Right now, I want to know about your nightmare.”
“People do have bad dreams, Joe. It’s not that uncommon.”
“But you haven’t had one in a long time. I thought you were over them.” His arms tightened around her. “I
them to be over.”
She knew he did, and she knew he tried desperately to give her the security and contentment that he thought would rid her of them. But Joe should know better than anyone that the nightmare would never entirely go away. “Just shut up and go back to sleep.”
“Was it about Bonnie?”
“No.” Eve felt a ripple of guilt. Someday she had to tell him why the dreams of Bonnie were no longer painful. But not yet. Even after this last year with him, she still wasn’t ready. Someday.
“The new skull? You’ve been working hard on it. Maybe too hard?”
“I’m almost done. It’s Carmelita Sanchez, Joe. I should be able to notify her parents in a couple days.” Then there would be closure and, perhaps, peace for them. “And you know my work never brings me anything but satisfaction. No bad dreams there.” Just sadness and pity and a driving passion to bring the lost ones home. “Stop probing. Bad dreams don’t have to have deep psychological implications. This was just a crazy, disjointed . . . It was probably something I ate. Jane’s pizza was a little too rich for—”
“What was it about?”
Joe wasn’t going to give up. He would pick at the subject until everything was out in the open. “A coffin. Okay? I was walking toward this coffin, and it scared me.”
“Who was in the coffin?” He paused. “Me? Jane?”
“Stop trying to read something into it. It was a closed coffin.”
“Then why were you scared?”
“It was a dream. For heaven’s sake, I deal with dead people every day of my life. It’s perfectly natural I should have an occasional macabre—”
“Why were you scared?”
“Drop it. It’s over.” She pulled his head down and kissed him. “Stop being a protective ass. The only therapy I want from you right now is strictly physical.”
He went still, resisting. Then he relaxed and moved over her. “Well, if you insist. I suppose I’ll have to be a gentleman and let you seduce me.”
Eve was surprised. She knew how stubborn Joe could be. She smiled and gently tugged at his hair. “Damn right, you will.”
“We’ll talk about the coffin later. . . .”
The coffin was in place in the altar of the church.
Jules bent to check the pedestal beneath it to make sure it was sturdy enough to bear the weight of the specially reinforced airtight coffin. He’d had it built to his own specifications and had been assured there would be no problem, but it was his responsibility and he was determined not to fail. Nothing must damage the coffin’s precious contents.
“I’ve paid them off. They’re on their way back,” Etienne said from the doorway. He came toward Jules, his gaze fixed on the coffin. “It looks so strange there. . . . We did it, didn’t we?”
Jules nodded. “Yes, we did it.”
Etienne was silent a moment. “I know you were angry with me, but now you understand, don’t you?”
“Yes, I understand.”
“Good. Well, here it is. We did it together.” Etienne put his arm affectionately around Jules’s shoulders. “It gives me a good feeling. You, too?”
“No.” Jules closed his eyes as the pain surged through him. “Not a good feeling.”
“Because you worry too much. But it’s over now.”
“Not quite.” Jules opened eyes that were full of tears. “Have I ever told you how much I love you, what a good brother you’ve been to me?”
Etienne laughed. “If you had, I would have been the one who was worried. You’re not a man who—” His eyes widened in shock as he saw the gun in his brother’s hand. “What are you—?”
Jules shot him in the heart.
Disbelief was frozen on Etienne’s face as he fell to the floor.
Jules couldn’t believe it, either. Dear God, let him take that moment back.
No, for he would only have to do it again.
Jules fell to his knees beside Etienne and gathered him in his arms. Tears ran down his face as he rocked him back and forth. Little brother. Little brother . . .
Control. He had one other task to perform before he could allow himself to grieve. The motorboat taking the men away from the church should be out of the bayou and on the widest part of the river by now.
He fumbled in his pocket for the switch and pressed the red button. He could not hear the explosion, but he knew it had happened. He had set the charge himself and he never allowed himself to make a mistake. There would be no survivors and no evidence.
It was done.
Jules turned back to Etienne and tenderly brushed the hair from his forehead. Sleep, little brother. He prayed Etienne was at peace. He was glad it was too dim in the church to see the shock and pain frozen on Etienne’s face.
No, the church was not that dim. It was the coffin, huge, dark, and casting its shadow over both Jules and Etienne.
Casting its shadow over all the world.
“No, Senator Melton,” Eve said firmly. “I’m not interested. I have enough work to keep me busy for the rest of the year. I certainly don’t need any more.”
“It would help us enormously if you could see your way clear to changing your mind. It’s a very sensitive situation and we need your help.” The senator paused. “And, after all, as a citizen, you do have a patriotic duty to—”
“Don’t give me that crap,” Eve interrupted. “Every time a bureaucrat wants to be put first on the list, he pulls out patriotic duty. You haven’t even told me what this job is going to be about. All I know is that I’d have to leave my home and my family and go running off to Baton Rouge. I can’t imagine a job important enough to make me do that.”
“As I said, it’s a very sensitive, confidential situation and I’m not at liberty to discuss it with you until you’re committed to—”
“Get someone else. I’m not the only forensic sculptor in the world.”
“You’re the best.”
“I’ve gotten a lot of press. That doesn’t mean—”
“You’re the best. False modesty doesn’t become you.”
“Okay, I’m damn good.” She paused. “But I’m not available. Get Dupree or McGilvan.” She hung up the phone.
Joe looked up from his book. “Melton, again?”
“He won’t give up. Lord save me from politicians.” Eve went back to the pedestal and began smoothing the clay over the skull. “God, they’re pompous.”
“Melton has the reputation of being fairly down-to-earth. He’s certainly popular. They say the Democrats are grooming him for president.”
“I wouldn’t trust any politician. They’re all bedfellows in Washington. They scratch each other’s backs.”
“Sounds a little disgusting.” Joe studied her. “But you’re intrigued. It’s sticking out all over you.”
“So, I’m curious. Melton’s evidently experienced at piquing people’s interest.” Eve didn’t take her gaze from the sculpture. “The only thing he’d tell me was that it was my patriotic duty. Bull.”
“No more than that?”
“He said we’ll discuss it when I commit.” She smoothed the area under the eye crevice. “I wonder who they think it is. . . .”
He watched her for a moment without speaking. “Louisiana in October isn’t too unpleasant. We could take a jaunt down to New Orleans. The department owes me some time, and Jane might like it.”
“You’re not invited.” She made a face. “Highly confidential and top secret.”
“Then screw him.” He thought about it a moment. “Was that a little lacking in tact and understanding? I know better than to try to get in the way of your job. If you’re tempted, I guess we could put up with being without you for a few weeks.”
“Why should I be tempted?” She wiped her hands on a towel and moved over to stand at the window. The lake was glittering blue on this fine autumn afternoon, and Jane was down on the shore playing with the new puppy Eve’s friend, Sarah Patrick, had given her. The girl was tossing a stick for Toby, and the mixed-breed dog was running crazily to retrieve it. They both looked so alive and healthy and wonderfully happy.
Well, what was there not to be happy about here in this place at this time?
She glanced over her shoulder at Joe, her protector, her best friend, her lover. He was the bedrock of her life, and every moment with him and Jane was precious. She smiled at him. “Hell, no, I’m not tempted. Screw Melton.”
“She refused,” Melton said when Jules Hebert picked up the phone. “She suggested I get Dupree.”
“I don’t want Dupree,” Hebert said curtly. “We need Eve Duncan. I told you that from the beginning. It has to be her.”
“It looks like you’ll have to make do with Dupree. He has a decent reputation.”
Hebert drew a deep breath. He had seen examples of Eve Duncan’s work on academic Websites and compared it to that of other leading forensic sculptors. It was like comparing a da Vinci masterpiece with a cave drawing. He couldn’t entrust this skull to a Neanderthal. It was too important to him. It was important to Melton and the rest of them, too, but Jules didn’t care about them. Not now. Melton had a safe job in a safe world. He sat in his office and lifted his finger and sent men like Hebert out to take his risks and do his bidding. “You told me I had to find a way to verify. Give me Eve Duncan and I’ll do it.”
“You made the mistake; it’s your job to correct it.”
Jules’s hand tightened on the phone. “There’s always a way to get what you want, if you work at it. What’s the problem?”
“My bet is that she’s so mired in domesticity that she can’t see beyond her little cottage in Georgia. It’s only what you’d expect from a woman.”
“Never underestimate women. I’ve known some that I’d rather avoid than come up against. Duncan is obviously very strong-willed. You approached her in the way that I suggested?”
“Yes, she seemed interested, but that didn’t make her accept.”
“Then we didn’t press the right buttons. There has to be some way. Tell me about her.”
“You know her reputation, or you wouldn’t be so sure she’s the right one for the job.”
Jules looked down at the newspaper with the picture of Eve Duncan that had first led him to call Melton. It was a photo of a woman in her early thirties with a strong, intelligent face framed by curly red-brown hair. She wore wire-rimmed glasses and looked out at the world with an odd mixture of boldness and sensitivity. “I know about her professional capabilities. I need to know more about her background. I need to know how to manipulate her.”
“She’s illegitimate and grew up in the slums of Atlanta with a crackhead for a mother. In later years, the mother gave up drugs, and she and Duncan became close. Eve got pregnant herself when she was sixteen and gave birth to a child, Bonnie. She went back to school and was working her way through when her seven-year-old little girl was murdered by some nut who had killed eleven other children. They couldn’t find the body, and that spurred Duncan to become a forensic sculptor. She studied at Georgia State and became one of the top forensic sculptors in the country. She works freelance and also with several police departments nationwide.”
“And her personal life?”
“She’s living with Joe Quinn, a detective with the Atlanta Police Department. They’ve been friends since her daughter was murdered over twelve years ago, but they’ve only been living together for the past two years. She’s recently adopted a twelve-year-old girl, Jane MacGuire, who grew up on the streets just as Duncan had done. They live in a lake cottage outside of Atlanta. Her daughter, Bonnie, is buried on the grounds.”