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Authors: Tami Hoag

Cry Wolf

CRY
WOLF
                                                                                                                                                                                    

TAMI
HOAG

BANTAM BOOKS

New York Toronto London Sydney Auckland

All things are taken from us, and become
Portions and parcels of the dreadful Past

Alfred, Lord Tennyson
The Lotus-Eaters

Author's Note

Anyone familiar with my work knows I have a special affection for that part of Louisiana known as Acadiana.
My interest has roots in family, even though it was the
music that first drew my attention, and branches into
history, linguistics, and a love for unique and fragile environments. In
Cry Wolf,
as in my previous books set in
south Louisiana, I have done my best to bring to you the
feel and flavor of bayou country. I have made a special
effort to portray some of the cultural diversity of the area through the use of local dialects—in particular, through the use of a number of Cajun French words and phrases. A glossary of these words and phrases can be found at the back of the book.

Cajun French is a distinct language born in France
and raised in Louisiana. About sixty percent of the words in the Cajun vocabulary can be found in a standard French dictionary. The rest are unique to the patois, words and phrases that evolved out of necessity to fit the environment and the people living in it.

My sources for the Cajun French used in
Cry Wolf
include
Conversational Cajun French
by Harry Jannise
and Randall P. Whatley, and
A Dictionary of the Cajun
Language
by the Reverend Monsignor Jules O. Daigle,
M.A., S.T.L., a complete source and especially wonderful
defense of a language that deserves to live on and flourish.

In a world where we are in reasingly pressured to conform and homogenize, ethnic diversity is a precious gift. My sincere thanks to the people who strive to preserve and nourish such endangered species as the Cajun language.
Merci Boucoup
.

Tami Hoag

Prologue

The
bâteau
slides through the still waters of the bayou. Still, black waters as dark as the night sky. As dark as the heart of a killer. In the water stand the cypress, rank upon rank, tall sentinels as motionless and silent as death. Behind them, on the banks, the weeping willows, boughs bowed as if by grief, and the live oak with their twisted trunks and gnarled branches, looking like enchanted things eternally frozen in a moment of agony. And from their contorted limbs hangs the moss, gray and dusty and tattered, like old feather boas left to rot in the attic of some long-forgotten, long-ruined mansion.

All is gray and black in the night in the swamp. The absence of light, the reflection of light. A sliver of moon is wedged between high clouds, then disappears. Stillness descends all around as the boat passes. Eyes peer out from the reeds, from the trees, from just above the surface of the water. Night is the time of the hunter and the hunted. But all the creatures wait as the
bâteau
slips past them, its motor purring, low and throaty, like a panther's growl. The air of expectation thickens like the mist that hovers between the trunks of the tupelo and sweet gum trees.

One predator has struck this night, cunning and vicious, with no motivation but the thrill of holding another's life and savoring the power to snuff it out. The creatures of the swamp watch as the predator passes, as the scent of fresh blood mingles with the rank, metallic aroma of the bayou and the sweet perfume of wild honeysuckle, jasmine, and verbena.

The motor dies. The boat skirts a raft of water hyacinth, noses through the cattails and lily pads, and sidles up to the muddy bank, where ferns and creepers grow in a tangled skein. Somewhere in the distance a scream tears through the fabric of the night. Like an echo. Like a memory. The predator smiles, fondly, slyly, thinking not of the nutria that issued the sound, but of the woman lying dead on the floor of the
bâteau.

Another kill. Another rush. Another dizzying high. Power, more seductive than sex, more addictive than cocaine. Blood, warm and silky, sweet as wine. The pulse of life rushing with fear, pounding, frantic . . . ebbing, dying . . .

The body is dragged to the bank, left near the end of a crushed clamshell path that glows powdery white as the moon flashes down once again like a searchlight—there and gone, there and gone. Its beam illuminates a dark head of hair, damp and disheveled with no trace of the style that had been so painstakingly sculpted and sprayed hours ago; a face, ghostly pale, cheeks rouged clownishly, lipstick smeared, mouth slack, eyes open and staring, unseeing, up at the heavens. Looking for mercy, looking for deliverance. Too late for either.

She will be found. In a day, maybe two. Fishermen will come to fill their creels with bream, bluegill, sac-a-lait. They will find her. But none will find her killer.

Too cunning, too clever, beyond the laws of man, outside the realm of suspicion this
predator stalks. . . .

Chapter
One

“I'll kill him.”

The hound sat in a pile of freshly dug earth, azalea bushes and rosebushes scattered all around like so many tumbleweeds, a streamer of wisteria draped around his shoulders like a priest's amice. Looking up at the people on the veranda with a quizzical expression, he tilted his head to one side, black ears perked like a pair of flags on the sides of his head. A narrow strip of white ran down between his eyes—one pale blue, one green—widening over his muzzle. His coat was a wild blend of blue and black, trimmed in white and mottled with leopard spots, as if Mother Nature hadn't been able to make up her mind as to just what this creature would be. As people spilled out the French doors of the elegant brick house known as Belle Rivière, he let out a mournful howl.

“I swear, I'll kill him,” Laurel Chandler snarled, her gaze fixed on the dog.

Rage and fury burned through her in a flash fire that threatened to sear through all slim threads of control. Two days she had been working on that garden. Two days. Needing desperately to do something and see an immediate, positive result, she had thrown herself into the task with the kind of awesome, single-minded determination that had taken her so far so fast as a prosecuting attorney. She had set herself to the towering task of reclaiming Aunt Caroline's courtyard garden in time to surprise her.

Well, Caroline Chandler had returned to Bayou Breaux from her buying trip, and she was surprised all right. She stood to Laurel's left, a tiny woman with the presence of a Titan. Her black hair was artfully coiffed in a soft cloud of loose curls, makeup applied deftly and sparingly, accenting her dark eyes and feminine mouth. She seemed barely forty, let alone fifty, her heart-shaped face smooth and creamy. She folded the fingers of her right hand gently over Laurel's clenched fist and said calmly, “I'm sure it was looking lovely, darlin'.”

Laurel attempted to draw in a slow, calming breath, the way Dr. Pritchard had taught her in relaxation therapy, but it hissed in through her clenched teeth and served only to add to the pressure building in her head and chest.

“I'll kill him,” she said again, jerking away from her aunt's hold. Her anger trembled through her body like an earthquake.

“I hep you, Miz Laurel,” Mama Pearl said, patting her stubby fingers against her enormous belly.

The old woman sniffed and shifted her ponderous weight back and forth from one tiny foot to the other, the skirt of her red flowered dress swirling around legs as thick and sturdy as small tree trunks. She had been with the Chandler family since Caroline and Jeff Chandler were children. She lived with Caroline not as an employee but as a member of the family, running Belle Rivière like a general and settling comfortably if testily into old age.

“Dat hound make nothin' but trouble, him,” she declared. “All the time rootin' in my trash like a pig, stealin' off the clothesline. Nothin' but trouble. Talk about!”

Laurel barely heard the woman's chatter. Her focus was completely on the Catahoula hound that had destroyed the first constructive thing she had accomplished since leaving Georgia and her career behind. She had come back to Louisiana, to Bayou Breaux, to heal, to start over. Now the first tangible symbol of her fresh start had been uprooted by a rampaging mutt. Someone was going to pay for this. Someone was going to pay dearly.

Letting out a loud primal scream, she grabbed her brand-new Garden Weasel and ran across the courtyard swinging it over her head like a mace. The hound bayed once in startled surprise, wheeled, and bounded for the back wall, toenails scratching on the brick, dirt and debris flying out behind him. He made a beeline for the iron gate that had rusted off its hinges during the time Belle Rivière had been without a gardener, and was through the opening and galloping for the woods at the bayou's edge before Laurel made it as far as the old stone fountain. By the time she reached the gate, the culprit was nothing more than a flash of blue and white diving into the cover of the underbrush, sending up a flock of frightened warblers to mark his passing.

Laurel dropped the Garden Weasel and stood with her hands braced against the gate that was wedged into the opening at a cockeyed angle. Her breath came in ragged gasps, and her heart was pounding as if she had run a mile, reminding her that she was still physically weak. A reminder she didn't appreciate. Weakness was not something she accepted well, in herself or anyone else.

She twisted her hands on the rusting iron spikes of the gate, the oxidizing metal flaking off against her palms as she forced the wheels of her mind to start turning. She needed a plan. She needed justice. Two months had passed since the end of her last quest for justice, a quest that had ended in defeat and in the ruination of her career and very nearly her life. Two months had passed since she had last used her mind to formulate a strategy, map out a campaign, stock up verbal ammunition for a cause, and the mental mechanisms seemed as rusty as the gate she was hanging on to with white-knuckled fists. But the old wheels caught and turned, and the momentary panic that she had forgotten what to do passed, a tremor that was there, then gone.

“Come along, Laurel. We'll go in to supper.” Caroline's voice sounded directly behind her, and Laurel flinched from nerves that were still strung too tight.

She turned toward her aunt, one of the few people in the world who actually made her feel tall at five foot five. “I've got to find out who owns that dog.”

“After you've had something to eat.”

Caroline reached out to take hold of her niece's hand, heedless of the rust coating her palms, heedless of the fact that Laurel was thirty years old. To Caroline's way of thinking, there were times when a person needed to be led, regardless of age. She didn't care for the obsessive light glazing over Laurel's dark blue eyes. Obsession had landed the girl in a quagmire of trouble already. Caroline was determined to do all she could to pull her out.

“You need to eat something, darlin'. You're down to skin and bones as it is.”

Laurel didn't bother to glance down at herself for verification. She was aware that the blue cotton sundress she wore hung on her like a gunny sack. It wasn't important. She had a closet full of prim suits and expensive dresses back in Georgia, but the person who had worn them had ceased to exist, and so had the need to care about appearances. Not that she'd ever been overly concerned with her looks; that was her sister Savannah's department.

“I need to find out who owns that dog,” she said with more determination than she'd shown in weeks. “Someone's got to make restitution for this mess.”

She stepped over the handle of the Garden Weasel and around her aunt, pulling her hand free of the older woman's grasp and heading back down the brick path toward the house. Caroline heaved a sigh and shook her head, torn between disgust and admiration. Laurel had inherited the Chandler determination, also known in moments such as this as the Chandler pigheadedness. If only Jeff had lived to see it. But then, Caroline admitted bitterly, if her brother had lived, they may well not have been in this mess. If Laurel's father hadn't been killed, then the terrible course of events that had followed his death would never have been set in motion, and Laurel and Savannah would in all likelihood have become very different from the women they were today.

“Laurel,” she said firmly, the heels of her beige pumps clicking purposefully against the worn brick of the path as she hurried to catch up. “It's more important that you eat something.”

“Not to me.”

“Oh, for—” Caroline bit off the remark, struggling to rein in her temper. She had more than a little of the Chandler determination herself. She had to fight herself to keep from wielding it like a club.

Laurel stepped up on the veranda, scooping a towel off the white wrought-iron table to wipe her hands. Mama Pearl huffed and puffed beside the French doors, wringing her plump hands, her light eyes bright with worry.

“Miz Caroline right,” she said. “You needs to eat, chile. Come in, sit down, you. We got gumbo for supper.”

“I'm not hungry. Thanks anyway, Mama Pearl.” She settled her glasses in place and combed her dark hair back with her fingers, then sent the old woman a winning smile as adrenaline rushed through her. The anticipated thrill of battle. “I've got to go find the hound dog that owns that hound dog and get us some justice.”

“Dat Jack Boudreaux's dog, him,” Mama Pearl said, her fleshy face creasing into folds of disapproval. “He's mebbe anyplace, but he's most likely down to Frenchie's Landing, and you don' need dat kinda trouble, I'm tellin' you,
chère
.”

Laurel ignored the warning and turned to kiss her aunt's cheek. “Sorry to miss supper your first night back, Aunt Caroline, but I should be back in time for coffee.”

With that she skipped around Mama Pearl and through the French doors, leaving the older women standing on the veranda shaking their heads.

Mama Pearl tugged a handkerchief out of the valley of her bosom to blot the beads of perspiration dotting her forehead and triple chins. “Me, I don' know what gonna come a' dat girl.”

Caroline stared after her niece, a grim look in her large dark eyes and a frown pulling at her mouth. She crossed her arms and hugged herself against an inner chill of foreboding. “She's going to get justice, Pearl. No matter what the cost.”

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