by Barbara Colley
The cooler, dry air was invigorating, and Charlotte
LaRue sighed with pleasure as she stepped onto the front porch
of her Victorian double.
The first touch of fall had finally arrived, but
not without a battle. Just before midnight she'd been awakened
by the clash of thunder and lightning as a cold front fought its
way south. Then the rain had begun, torrents of it from the sound
it had made beating against her roof. But the rain hadn't lasted
long, just long enough to wash away any remnants of the heat and
humidity that typically smothered New Orleans.
Of course, by the time the so-called cold front
reached the city, it wasn't cold any more. It was simply cooler.
But cooler was good. She'd gladly take what she could get.
Charlotte sighed again. Today would have been the perfect day to raise the
windows and air out her stuffy house. Too bad, she thought. Her aging air-conditioner
could use the rest, and she could use the reprieve from her outrageous electric
bill as well.
But duty called. Today she had to go to work, and
for the sake of security, she didn't dare leave the windows open
without being there. For the first time in a long time, she'd be
working through the weekend as well, but Sunday might be a possibility,
if she finished up the job on Saturday.
"Probably won't last till Sunday," she
muttered. Unlike other parts of the country that had a real, honest-to-goodness
fall season, October in New Orleans could be as mercurial as a
woman going through menopause.
Charlotte winced at the mental analogy, but she
had no illusions about the source. Aging . . . menopause . . .
change of seasons. Change of life. Another year passing. And with
another year, yet another birthday.
But not just any birthday. This one was the big
one, the one that made her insides shrivel and tighten with dread
every time she thought about it.
Turning fifty had been bad enough, a half century
bad enough, including menopause and all of the cliched jokes about
being over the hill. But there was just something about even the
sound of sixty . . .
Charlotte shuddered. Then, with a determined shake
of her head, she lifted her chin and straightened her shoulders.
She'd read somewhere that aging was a state of mind, the difference
between thinking positive and negative. You're only as old as you
think. Or maybe that was feel? You're only as old as you feel.
"Whichever," she murmured with a shrug.
Think . . .
feel . . . It didn't really matter. What mattered was concentrating on keeping
a good positive attitude instead of dwelling on the negative. She should be
grateful for all of the good things about her life, she thought. She had the
love of her family and friends, and her health. Her maid service had grown
by leaps and bounds, so much so that she'd had to expand and hire help.
Charlotte blinked several times and frowned. Her
left eye itched. Though she loved this time of year, unfortunately,
her allergies didn't. She reached up to rub her eye. Then, clenching
her fist, she quickly lowered her hand.
Rubbing the eyes could cause wrinkles. Yet one more
thing to be grateful for, she decided. Thanks to good genes, she
didn't have that many wrinkles. Not yet. And the bit of gray in
her hair still blended naturally with the dark blond, giving it
a highlighted look. Her daily walk and her line of work helped
keep her physically fit--her muscles were toned, and she could
still wear a size ten petite dress.
Her daily walk . . . Charlotte took a deep breath,
savoring the cool air, then let it out in a sigh full of longing.
Oh, how she missed her early-morning walks. There was something
really special about getting out when everything was still fresh.
Yet another change. Everything changes and nothing
stays the same, she reminded herself. It had been five months since
she'd begun working for Marian Hebert on Mondays, Wednesdays, and
Fridays. Unlike her former clients, the Dubuissons, who had been
content with her showing up at nine, Marian wanted her at work
by eight. At first she'd set her alarm clock an hour earlier each
morning so she could still take her walk. She was not an early
riser by nature, though. Getting up earlier had lasted only a week
before she'd decided to content herself with walking in the evenings
"Oh, well," she murmured, glancing around
for the newspaper. There was no use in worrying about any of it.
The only thing to do was learn to roll with the punches.
Worrying about turning sixty wasn't going to change
the outcome. Whether she liked it or not, unless she died or the
world came to an end, her birthday would come. And worrying about
having to change her walking time wouldn't change anything either,
not if she wanted to keep her newest client.
Still searching for the newspaper, Charlotte stepped
closer to the front of the porch. She spotted it on the second
step from the bottom. The paper was enclosed in a clear plastic
bag that still held small pockets of water from the rain. She bent
down, picked it up, then shook off the excess moisture. Just as
she slipped it out of the plastic wrap, she heard the click of
the deadbolt on the front door of the other half of her double.
"Oh, no!" she whispered, glaring at the
door. Thoughts of making a run for it flitted through her head.
The last person she wanted to see and the last person she wanted
to see her this early in the morning was Louis Thibodeaux.
She still couldn't believe that she'd given in and
rented out the other half of her double to him. After the last
tenants she'd had, she'd decided against ever renting to anyone
again. But Louis was different, and knowing his stay would only
be temporary had been the deciding factor.
The house he'd owned Uptown had sold before he'd
finished building his retirement home on Lake Maurepas. Once he'd
finished his lake house, he would move out.
Charlotte eyed her own front door and calculated
her chances. No way would she make it in time, not without breaking
her neck on the slippery porch in the process. With a resigned
sigh, she faced the door at the other end of the porch as it swung
Louis Thibodeaux was a stocky man with gray hair
and a receding hairline. Though not pretty-boy handsome, he was
an attractive man, in a rugged sort of way. And unlike most men
his age, his belly was still nice and flat instead of hanging over
"Hey, there, Charlotte," he said. "I
thought I heard you out here."
Great, she thought, wondering if her hair was sticking
up all over the place and wishing she'd at least pulled on a pair
of sweats instead of her old ratty housecoat.
In contrast, Louis had already showered, shaved,
and dressed, and every gray hair on his perfectly shaped head was
combed and in place.
Charlotte forced a smile and held up the newspaper. "Just
getting the paper." She stepped back up onto the porch. Noting
that he was wearing jeans and a flannel shirt instead of his usual
khaki slacks and dress shirt, she tilted her head and frowned. "You
"Today and tomorrow." He held up crossed
fingers. "I'm just hoping that nothing major goes down to
Charlotte suppressed a shudder. Louis was a New
Orleans homicide detective, and to Louis, "major" meant
murder and death.
"Since Judith is showing my replacement the
ropes," he continued, "I thought this would be a good
time to take some vacation days."
Charlotte frowned. "Your replacement? Already?
But I thought you weren't retiring until the end of the year."
"I'm not, but the end of the year will be here
before you know it."
And so will my birthday. Charlotte immediately shied
away from the depressing thought. "How is my niece, by the
way?" Better to think about Judith than to think about turning
sixty. "I haven't seen or heard from her since last Sunday."
"She's okay." He shrugged. "It's
been kinda rough on her, breaking in a new partner, but hey--she's
tough, and she'll survive."
Survive! Charlotte didn't like the sound of that,
but before she could question Louis about it, he switched subjects
"I'm glad I caught you before I left," he
said. "I'll be working out at the camp for the next couple
of days, but I'll have my cell phone on, just in case anything
comes up. We finally got the roof on last week, so I'm ready to
start on the inside. If everything goes as planned, I should be
able to move by the end of next month."
Charlotte nodded but gave him a sharp look. "What
exactly did you mean by 'survive'?"
His expression abruptly grew tight, and a warning
cloud settled on his features. "I didn't mean anything, Charlotte.
It's just an expression. The new guy will do just fine. Judith
will do just fine," he emphasized. "Besides, he comes
highly recommended by the brass."
The last was said with a slight edge in his voice,
and that, along with Louis' expression, could mean almost anything.
"Stop it, Charlotte. Get that look off your face and stop it right now."
She narrowed her eyes. "If there's something
wrong with Judith or this new partner of hers, I have a right to
know, so you just stop it. This is my niece we're talking about,
a girl I helped raise. And you and I both know that a good partner
can mean the difference between life and death for a police officer."
"Judith will be just fine." He separated
and emphasized each word as if he were talking to a stubborn two-year-old. "I
don't have time for this right now. I've got things to do, and
I'd like to get on the road before traffic backs up."
Before Charlotte could protest, he stalked past
her, stomped down the steps, and made a beeline for his car.
For long seconds, she stood glued to the spot, fuming,
as she watched the detective drive off down the street. Something
was going on, something he didn't want to talk about. And just
like a man, any time they didn't want to talk about a subject,
they either headed for the sanctuary of the bathroom or they simply
left the premises.
Finally, with a frustrated shake of her head, she
headed inside. But as she passed her desk, she eyed the phone. "I
should give Judith a call and find out for myself about this new
partner of hers." She glanced up at the birdcage near the
front window. "What do you think, Sweety Boy?" she asked. "Should
I call her?"
The little parakeet cocked his head to one side,
let out a chirp, then began prancing back and forth along the perch
inside his cage, squawking out the only word he knew. "Crazy!
"Well, you're no help. And that's enough of
that. Why can't you say something nice, something like 'good morning'
or even just 'hello'?" For months she'd been trying to teach
the silly parakeet to talk, but the one word that he had chosen
to say wasn't among the few phrases she'd repeated over and over.
Go figure, she thought as she eyed the phone again.
Just about the time she'd made up her mind to dial her niece, the
cuckoo clock on the wall over her desk signaled the half hour.
Charlotte glared at the parakeet, then burst out
laughing. "You're right, Sweety. I would be 'crazy' to call
this early." Knowing her niece, she probably wasn't even awake
In the kitchen, armed with her first cup of coffee,
Charlotte seated herself at the table. She removed the Lagniappe
Arts and Entertainment insert that came with each Friday's paper
and set it aside to read later. Though she normally read the paper
at the end of the day, she always took time to scan the headlines
over her first cup of coffee.
Flattening out the rest of the paper, she began
skimming the front page. When her gaze reached the bottom right-hand
corner, she froze, her eyes riveted to the caption.
"Dubuisson Murder Trial--Jury Selection to
She'd known it was coming, but the shock of actually
seeing it in bold print still stunned her. For long seconds, she
stared at the paper, mesmerized. The five months that had passed
since the scandalous Dubuisson murder evaporated like rising steam,
and she blanked out everything but the horrific events behind the
Like a video on fast-forward, the horrible memories
unfolded in her mind in rapid succession. And she saw it all again,
beginning with the day she'd first learned that someone in her
former client's household had been murdered and ending with her
horrifying brush with death that had finally precipitated the arrest
of the murderer.
Only recently had her nightmares eased. Only within
the last month had she finally stopped reliving her own near death
experience because of her association with the Dubuissons.
Charlotte shivered. When it happened, she'd been
lucky that the police kept her name out of the papers. This time,
though, she wouldn't be so lucky. First the jury selection, then
the trial. And with the trial, the D.A. would subpoena her as a
witness for the prosecution. Not only would her name be in the
papers, but she'd have to relive it all again, all of it, blow
by blow, the whole sordid, ugly affair.
"Wonderful," she muttered, feeling as
if the weight of the world had suddenly descended on her shoulders. "Just
what I needed this morning." Not only did she have her sixtieth
birthday to look forward to, but now this, something else to dread.
Excerpt from Death
Copyright 2002 by Barbara Colley