The Gulf of Mexico lapped at Faye Longchamp’s toes, as flawlessly blue as the water that wrapped around her home on Joyeuse Island. The waves splashed on her bare feet, blood-warm, just as they did on her own beach. The scent of salt water was as familiar as the soap smell on her husband’s neck.
Strictly speaking, she wasn’t really looking at the Gulf of Mexico. Faye wasn’t sure how to name this water. In south Louisiana, the land just drifts to sea. The water at Faye’s feet was connected to a bunch of canals and island-dotted estuaries and grassy coves that extended south and west until they eventually connected to Barataria Bay, and it was connected to the Gulf of Mexico. Regardless of its name, this water smelled like the gulf breezes that blew in her bedroom window every morning. Faye had never traveled much. There had simply been no money. Starting her own archaeological consulting firm had held the promise of frequent business trips, paid for by someone else. What could be better than seeing the world and being paid to do it?
This first out-of-state consulting trip had brought her here to south Louisiana, five hundred miles from her front door… to a place that looked and felt pretty much like home. Maybe someday she’d land a client who wanted to send her someplace exotic, but not this time.
This client had just called with a change in assignment, and Faye was still trying to wrap her brain around it. Everything had changed in the days since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank, though none of those changes were visible to the naked eye. Yet.
The water at her feet was still just as clear. The sky was as blue. Pelicans flew overhead without a care in the world.
Actually, one ripple from the offshore disaster had already reached shore—fear. It showed on the faces of boaters at this marina, where a rented cabin served Faye as project headquarters. It showed in the reluctance of shoppers to part with money at the marina’s tiny convenience store. It showed in the concern on the face of the marina’s manager, Manny, as he stood at the cash register and surveyed an empty restaurant.
It showed the most at the waterfront. Every time someone walked to the shore and stood there looking, as Faye was doing now, the fear showed.
Joe appeared at her side. It was a comfort to remember how many times they’d stood on their own island and looked out to sea in just this way. He leaned down to speak in her ear, so that she could hear him over the wind that whipped off the water hard enough to stir even Joe’s heavy black ponytail.
The expected endearment didn’t come. Instead, he said, “We’re out of bottled water to mix Michael’s formula. I’ll get some at the marina store.”
Faye snaked an arm around his waist and rubbed her hand over the muscles of his flat belly, just to remind him that she was a girl. “Grab some of that turkey he likes while you’re there.”
He put his lips next to her ear again, then headed for her neck. “If I get sweet potatoes, too, he’ll sleep better…and longer.”
Seduction between parents moves at lightning speed. It has to. There’s no time.
Faye whispered, “If you get some of that microwave rice to go with it, he’ll sleep till sunup,” and Joe was gone, making tracks to the convenience store so that they could carb-load their baby. Faye was left to watch the setting sun bleed into the sea.
Somewhere out there in the Gulf of Mexico floated actual blood and crumpled wreckage and a whole lot of oil. Before many days had passed, the oil would come here. Faye’s job had become a race against time.
# # #
Steve Daigle’s wife was hardly cold in the ground. Actually, she was neither cold nor in the ground. He’d cremated the body, since it was the cheapest way to get rid of her, and that had just happened yesterday. He doubted she’d really had time to cool off before he dumped the ashes into the stagnant, lukewarm bayou behind their duplex.
Justine was gone. He did not miss the hospice workers trooping in and out of the house, taking her vital signs and recharging the morphine in her IV. Why in hell couldn’t somebody hook him up to a morphine pump?
He did not miss the months when she was on chemo, retching and vomiting on schedule, three weeks on and one week off. Did he miss Justine herself, before the cancer erupted from her breasts and consumed the rest of her? Steve wasn’t sure his memory reached back that far. He remembered the breasts. They’d been on the small side, but soft. She’d trembled when he touched them. Yes, he missed those. And he missed her firm little ass.
Had he loved her? Was that why he stuck around to watch her shrivel and die?
Maybe he’d loved her and maybe he hadn’t, but Steve Daigle was not the kind of man who stayed around for the hard times. Justine’s diagnosis of terminal cancer would ordinarily have sent him out the door and on his way to the next parish, but not in this case. He had an inheritance to consider. Justine had owned a piece of her late father’s houseboat, not to mention a piece of a nice little pile of stock in the oil company where he’d worked.
After he’d found out about that inheritance, it had taken him a while to understand why Justine couldn’t just go back to her hometown and kick her stepmother off that houseboat. Finally, he’d called a cousin who’d almost finished paralegal school, and she’d walked him through Louisiana’s twisty inheritance laws.
She’d repeated herself until her words sank into his brain, but that didn’t mean he liked those words.
She’d said, “Like Justine told you, her father died without a will, so all the property he’d owned before he married didn’t go to his wife. It went to his natural children. This means his wife Miranda didn’t inherit the houseboat she’s living on, nor the stock that provides the income that pays her bills. The kids own it.”
This was the part Steve liked. Unfortunately, there was more to the story.
“When there’s no will, the state of Louisiana gives the surviving spouse a ‘usufruct’ on the property. This means that Justine’s stepmother, Miranda, has the use of the houseboat and the income from the stock for as long as she lives. But the children, the actual owners—they don’t receive their property until she dies. Her estate will owe the children, or their heirs, all the money she collected in dividends for all these years, but Miranda’s got no money. There won’t be anything in the estate to repay those dividends, so his children are screwed in that regard. They’ll eventually get the boat and stock, but that’s all, and it won’t happen till Miranda dies and that could be a lot of years.” The cousin delivered the final bad news with a colloquial definition she’d learned from a classmate. “It’s easy to remember the word ‘usufruct.’ The person holding the usufruct has the use of the property. And the actual owners are ‘fruct.’”
Steve didn’t see himself as stupid, though he may in fact have been. His immediate reaction to this news had been to ask his cousin to help him draw up a will for Justine.
Thanks to the terms of that will, there would be no usufructs for Steve. When Miranda croaked, Steve would own all of Jus- tine’s worldly goods outright.
Now that Justine was gone, paying Miranda a visit seemed like the obvious thing to do. He could tell her about Justine’s death, pay his respects to the grieving stepmother. He could also get some idea of just how old Miranda really was, because he really needed her to die soon so he could move onto that boat. The rent on this duplex was killing him.
Justine had described her stepmother as physically frail and mentally tough. Mental toughness was all well and good, but it didn’t keep a person alive.
If God was good, Steve would arrive just in time to see Miranda succumb to sudden cardiac arrest. It could happen. He threw some clothes and a razor into a duffle bag, hooked his boat to the back of his truck, and hit the road.
# # #
Faye’s client, a humongous environmental firm, had originally sent her to survey archaeological sites along the Mississippi south of New Orleans as part of a run-of-the-mill environmental assessment. The Deepwater Horizon disaster had exploded her routine project into a job so huge that it just might swamp her little company.
She’d hung up the phone after accepting the new work and wandered to the waterfront, hoping the water on her bare feet would tell her what to do. Faye’s client had not grown to be humongous by hiring foolish people. The managers knew that their firm would be well positioned to land the Mother of All Environmental Impact Statements if it could provide a good assessment of the land as it was now, before it got messed up. Faye was now officially contracted to race with the oil.
Others would be hurrying to assess the other aspects of the area—the plants, the animals, the towns, the roads, the economy, the air quality, the water quality—but Faye just needed to focus on its archaeology: the physical remnants of human history near the mouth of the Mississippi. Humans had lived here and fought over this land ever since they figured out that boats made it easy to go places and move stuff.
Most of this vast area was accessible only by a boat captained by somebody smart enough to navigate water that was way shallower than your average bathtub. There was no way around it. Faye’s new project was gargantuan, and it just might be impossible. The only point in her favor was the fact that she and Joe had been piddling around in little-bitty boats for a combined half-century. She’d upgraded their rental boat when the new scope-of-work came in, and the new one didn’t count as “little-bitty.”
Manny, the marina’s manager, had grinned from ear to hand- some ear when Faye told him she needed something bigger. Then he’d reached up a mahogany hand and brushed one long dreadlock back over a broad shoulder, revealing three hoop earrings and a diamond stud. “Let me show you the boat I rent to the rich Yankee fishermen. A beautiful business owner like you, ma’am, should ride in style.”
Faye didn’t like to think that she could be swayed in her financial decisions merely by being called beautiful, but she was now in temporary possession of a watercraft that was way nicer than any boat she or Joe had ever owned. It was more than twenty feet long and luxuriously outfitted, yet designed to navigate waters less than two feet deep. It was good that the thing was comfortable, because she and Joe would be coming to know it intimately. They would be doing a lot of this work themselves, since they were working with a skeleton crew.
Oh, who was she kidding? She was working with Joe and a part-time technician. Even the term “skeleton crew” was a bit much.
The original job had been a perfect fit for her startup company—an initial survey, heavy on library research and site walk-overs, without the need for excavation that would have required a big crew. The best part about the job had been that they could even bring little Michael.
And the worst part about the job had been that they could even bring little Michael.
Joe was much better than Faye at handling the distractions of having a nearly-one-year-old underfoot. He also was much better at dealing with the natural behavior of a tiny child, which can only be described as suicidal. Faye knew she was capable of laser-sharp focus on her work, which meant that she was capable of forgetting to watch a toddler every split second. Michael had his father’s strength and coordination, so he’d learned to walk before he was nine months old. And he was fast. Her nightmares were now haunted by speeding cars and sharp objects and the still bodies of water that are so seductive to children who can’t swim.
Faye’s inspired solution to the problem of Michael had been to hire Dauphine, a technician who had done fabulous work for her at the Chalmette battlefield near New Orleans. No less significant was the fact that Dauphine had also saved her life.
Most of the time, Dauphine was Michael’s babysitter, but when he was napping or otherwise occupied, she reverted to being a crackerjack technician. Even better, when she was being a technician, she was billable to the client. This warmed the deepest depths of Faye’s businesswoman heart.
Dauphine was a stout woman who dressed like the part-time voodoo mambo that she was, covered in mismatched, candy-colored scarves and turbans and flowing skirts. Her personal style was not a problem in this part of the world, where voodoo mambos in full ceremonial regalia didn’t attract one whit of attention. Michael had adored Dauphine from the moment he laid eyes on her. Faye was pretty sure he just liked to watch his mambo babysitter float by in a sea of multicolored gauze.