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Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Colonel's Tale - first chapter

This is the third in the Dassas Cormier Mystery Series.

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Marshall's Bayou, Louisiana
November 18, 1924

Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday as a boy, filled with sweet potato pie, juicy baked turkey and the love of a close knit family. My brothers and I always played ball before dinner, and burned leaves if the winds were calm. I knew the holiday wouldn't be the same without my parents and two oldest brothers, but I was looking forward to it all the same—my first Thanksgiving in Marshall's Bayou in many years.

I should have known Coralee would find a way to twist it into a bad dream.

As the youngest of five, and the only girl, my little sister demanded attention whenever she was around. The world revolved around her, and everyone else had to make do with his lowly station in life. Now, don't misunderstand—I love my sister. But I tend to feel a deeper brotherly warmth for her when she's safely tucked away in North Dakota with her husband, Manny Johnson.

That year, however, she'd decided to grace us with her presence.

"I see it!" My fourteen-year-old nephew Frank stood on his toes and pointed at the puff of smoke rising above the marsh grass. His five-year-old sister Chloe tugged on my pants leg and demanded to be lifted, and I obliged her.

We stood together on the covered dock in front of the only two businesses in Marshall's Bayou—Theriot's Dancehall and Brandon's Mercantile. Both places badly needed paint and general maintenance, but no one really minded their appearance. When guests arrived by mailboat, folks gathered as if waiting at Grand Central in New York City, and the raised platform provided a view for miles from which you could see every house in the southwest Louisiana marsh and glistening white sand beaches downstream.

"Are you sure this looks all right?" Becky smoothed the front of her best Sunday dress and frowned at me. Her pecan-brown hair, tied with a velvet ribbon, hung down her back in perfect ringlets, and, despite the frown, excitement brightened her dark eyes.

"You look beautiful, as always." I grinned at my sister-in-law's concern. "And I don't know why we had to get dressed up. It's only Coralee."

"And Colonel Jedidiah Gilmore," she said. "He's an important man, Dass. We're privileged to have him staying with us."

I sighed and looked at my niece.

"You hear that? We're privileged." I pinched her chin, and she giggled then rested her slender arm on my shoulder as she turned to watch the approaching mailboat.

My brother Alcide walked out of Brandon's carrying his youngest child, Fred, on one arm; the toddler's striking red hair contrasted sharply with his father's dark waves. The dock shook as Alcide strolled across the ancient wooden planks.

"Any sign yet?" He stopped beside Becky and wrapped his free arm around her waist.

"Yes," she said, pointing, "it's starting around the last bend."

He grinned at her. "You're beautiful."

"See?" I said. "I told you."

Alcide frowned at me over his wife's head. "Told her what?"

"That she's beautiful," I said.

"What are you doing talking to my wife like that?"

"Trying to steal her away from you."


"You want to make something of it?"

"Not really. You haven't got a prayer."

Becky looked up at me. "Can't you two be serious for five minutes?"

I shrugged. "If that's what you want. You know I only live to please you."

She rolled her eyes then straightened her dress again, took a deep breath and huffed it out. I couldn't believe she was truly nervous.

Our little welcome party watched the old flat-bottom boat slow, turn and ease up to the pilings. Frank ran out to catch the line from Captain Teller and wrapped it expertly around the largest cleat.

"I-I don't see anyone." Becky stepped forward.

The deck of the boat was completely empty, save for the captain and a bag of mail.

"Figures," I muttered.

Captain Teller waved. "Dassas Cormier?"

"Yes, sir." I lowered Chloe to her father's side and walked to the edge of the dock.

"I've got a message for you," he said. He stretched up and handed me an envelope with my name printed on the front.

I opened the letter and read it.

Dearest Dassas,
We've had a tragic accident and are delayed in Lake Charles. Please don't worry. The doctors hope for a full recovery, and we plan to board the train again as soon as possible. The cruel winds of fate blow when they're least expected.
Your loving sister,

"Oh, good Lord," I muttered.

"What? What is it?"

I handed the letter to Becky.

"Oh, my," she said. "This is horrible. What on earth could have happened?" She looked at her husband. "Please, Al, you must go to Lake Charles."

He cringed.

"Your sister needs you," she said. "Poor Cora. She's hurt and stranded."

Alcide looked at me and raised one eyebrow. "Yes, dear."

Now, I guess I could have stepped back and let Alcide hop the boat. He was, after all, the oldest in the family, although I'm not sure that counts after everyone reaches adulthood. And I did have a job. As the chief of police for Marshall's Bayou, I was expected to be available to protect the townspeople and preserve the peace.

But I have to admit—after two months in the tiny coastal community, I was ready for a little excitement, even if I hadn't realized it until that moment. So far, I'd only been called on to help track down lost cattle, intercede in family squabbles and head up a group that patched a collapsed barn roof. Not exactly the kind of excitement I'd experienced in New Orleans as a patrolman. Plus, I suspected that Cora had addressed the letter to me for a reason.

"No," I said, "you stay here with your family. I'll go."

Alcide grinned. "Are you sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure." I slugged him in the shoulder as I walked by. "But you owe me." I glanced back at my nephew. "Frank, come help me pack."

"Yes, sir." The boy ran across the dock and made it down the dozen stairs in three steps.

"Don't let the boat leave without me," I said to Alcide.

"Don't you worry."

I followed Frank at a trot along the path that led north and east through the saw grass and brush until we reached my house. Inside, huffing to catch my breath, I pulled a bag from the closet, opened it on the bed, dragged clothes from the dresser and stuffed them in.

"Get my dark suit out of the hall closet," I said.

Frank retrieved the suit and laid it on the bed. I neatly folded the sleeves and rolled the entire thing up as one piece.

"See that bread on the kitchen counter?"

He hurried into the next room. "Yes, sir."

"Take it to your mama after I leave. And carry that scrap bowl out for the cats, will you?"

"Yes, sir."

I pulled out my shaving kit and looked around for the shaving brush. Turned out it had fallen from the stand and rolled halfway across the room and under the bed, and I had to crawl after it.

"Frank, go put a bridle on Midnight. We'll ride him back to the dock."

The boy's boots thumped across the floor as he ran from the house.

I was packed and ready to go in less than ten minutes. I tucked my shirt in around the money belt, put on my coat and hat and grabbed my bag.

Frank waited astride Midnight, just outside the door. I handed him my bag, grabbed a handful of mane and swung up behind him.

"Okay, let's go."

I looked back at the house as Frank urged the gelding to a trot. It was a comfortable house raised on brick pilings, with three bedrooms, a dining room and kitchen, and a small sitting room that the sun warmed on winter mornings and Gulf breezes cooled on summer evenings. It was freshly whitewashed and newly re-roofed, yet haunted by memories of the woman I loved.

When Grace Trahan abandoned me and Marshall's Bayou, she'd left her family home to be used to house the chief of police. I guess she knew I'd eventually take the job. I was grateful for a place to live, but spent many evenings wishing I shared the house with her.

When I first returned to Marshall's Bayou, I found Grace—the girl I'd loved since grade school—married to a man who was missing. She'd asked me to look for her wayward husband, which I did reluctantly. I won't bore you with the details of that search, especially since I've told the story before, but I was fortunate enough to get a chance to tell

Grace how I felt about her. I still hoped someday she'd discover that she loved me, too. I wondered where she was at that moment. Was she eating in a fancy New York restaurant? Or maybe strolling through Central Park? Or was she lounging by a window with a book in her lap, looking out at the city and wondering about me?
Probably not the latter.

An oilrig rose starkly in the front yard. Sun Oil had tapped a small reservoir and regularly pumped out a couple dozen barrels of crude. The haul distance prevented the well from being very profitable, but I imagine the royalties, and the meager rent I paid, kept Grace in new dresses.

We made it back to the dock before Captain Teller was ready to leave. I hopped down and looked up at my nephew.

"Take care of him for me," I said as I patted Midnight's shoulder.

The boy nodded.

My family was still on the dock. I kissed Chloe and Fred and accepted a hug and kiss from Becky.

"Thank you," she said.

"It's the least I can do for such important guests."

She frowned and slapped my arm. I laughed then shook hands with my brother. He pulled me to him for a quick hug.

"Be careful," he said. "It seems like every time you leave on this boat you come back with bruises."

"Don't worry. I'll come back in one piece this time."


I tossed my bag onto the deck of the old boat and followed it aboard. Opting for a shady seat, I settled onto the bench under the canvas tarp in the back and waved to my family. Alcide untied the line. The engine chugged as we pulled away from the dock and made a wide circle in the muddy brown water.

Alcide, Becky and the children sank into the golden marsh grass as we swept around the first bend and headed north on the bayou. Once the houses were no longer visible, Marshall's Bayou became nothing more than clumps of trees marking homesites, like stakes in a newly planted garden. Marsh birds rose on each side of the waterway, stirred from their fishing endeavors by our appearance, and alligators splashed into the water then stared after us.

I leaned back, tilted my hat over my eyes and stretched out to take a nap. It would be the middle of the night when we reached Orange, Texas, where I'd board the train headed east. Since the train didn't leave until sometime after eight in the morning, I'd have to spend the night in the station. The boat was more comfortable, and a lot less busy.

The steady beat of the old engine, drowning out marsh noises, should have lulled me to sleep. Instead, it tossed me into a sunny afternoon in September of 1918 when another, very different message had arrived with the mail...

I noted engine smoke from the old boat winding down the bayou, still a quarter-mile or so out, as I climbed the stairs to the dock. Although fall waited just around the corner, summer still had its teeth in the marsh. I raised my hat to wipe my forehead then pulled open the screen door and strolled into Brandon's Mercantile.

Mr. Brandon dusted his knees as he rose from where he'd been stocking a lower shelf.

"Good day to you, young man."

"Mr. Brandon," I said, "do you have any more of that chicken wire?"


"Yes, sir. I've just got one more hole to plug and we'll be set."

"Well," he said, "I may have another roll in the back room."

We both turned as three sharp blasts announced the mail boat's arrival.
I motioned with my head. "I can grab the mailbag, if you don't mind looking for the wire."

Mr. Brandon nodded. "All right."

I wandered outside, squinting against shards of sunlight reflecting off brown water as the boat slid up to the dock. Captain Teller threw a rope to me, and I wrapped it around a cleat.

"Afternoon," I said.

"Good afternoon." The hearty captain, dressed in a blue wool suit from another time and place, tossed the mailbag over his shoulder and lumbered to the edge of the deck.

"Aren't you one of the Cormier boys?"

"Yes, sir." I took the bag from him and placed it on the dock. "Something I can do for you?"

Captain Teller frowned as he searched the inside of his coat.

"Son, I sure hate to be the one to deliver this. It's not my first. I pray God it will be my last, but I don't hold out much hope in times like these." He produced an envelope and held it out to me. "I am sincerely sorry."

My heart clenched, and all the air escaped from my lungs as I stared at the telegram. I saw "Mr. Pierre Cormier" and "United States Army" and couldn't read the rest. Just holding it in my hand burned like a white-hot coal.

Struggling to breathe, I stumbled from the dock, through the marsh and into the yard. My father turned as I approached, his face red from exertion.

"What the devil took you so—"

His dark eyes widened as he stared at me; then his gaze dropped to the envelope. Shaking his head slowly, he backed away.

Realizing I must be the one to do it, I fought trembling hands to read the telegram, and learned that my eldest brother had died on a battlefield in France.

"It's Louie."

My father fell to the ground.

A door shut in his mind that day, locking him away from the rest of us. The man who had always been full of life and gentle strength disappeared. He lived another two months, withering away like a neglected pepper plant then fell asleep one night and didn't wake.

We buried him between Louie and Mama, with the dirt still fresh on Trey's grave, and most of Marshall's Bayou attended the funeral. I stood beside Becky, holding my eight-year-old nephew's scrawny shoulders as he wept. I don't know why I didn't cry—I'd cried when I buried my brothers. Maybe I'd used up all the tears by the time my father died.

Two days later, a cold wind blew in from the west, escorting my sister and her husband from Texas. Cora had been married for nearly a year, just long enough to lose a little of her precocious manner. Or perhaps two weeks of traveling had matured her.

She arrived tired, covered with dust and angry.

"How could you let this happen?" she demanded as we stood beside Papa's grave. "You should have taken care of him."

I turned to stare at her as a crow cawed from somewhere behind me.

"Cora, my dear," Manny said, taking her arm, "you know Dassas couldn't have prevented this."

She jerked her arm from his grip.

"Yes, he could have!" Then she turned on me again, sticking her finger in my face. "You promised to take care of Papa. How could you let him die? You promised!"

"Cora!" Manny grabbed her more firmly with an arm around her waist, turned her toward the buggy and cast an apologetic glance at me over his shoulder.

I'm not sure what I felt at that point. I grieved the loss of my father and brothers, hated being the one left behind and, worst of all, worried that Cora might be right. Maybe I could have done something to help heal my father's broken heart. Had I selfishly neglected him?


I straightened as Becky approached.

"She's wrong, Dass. This isn't your fault."

Embarrassed by my tears, I turned my face away from my sister-in-law and wiped my eyes.

She rested a hand on my arm.

"We still have one more to pray for, to be strong for."

I thought about Alcide, sitting in a hospital in France, reading my letter about Papa. Somehow, I knew he'd be tough, no matter how much the news tore him up. He'd always been the strong one.

I nodded. "You're right.

Turning toward the buggy, I wrapped an arm around her shoulders, and she leaned her head against my chest as we walked.

My sister had always been the apple of my father's eye, but it didn't give her the right to drive a knife in my heart when it was already raw. I decided to pretend to be like Alcide so the knife would bounce off. Someday, I might remind Coralee that she could have stayed home to take care of Papa if she'd really been worried.

Canvas snapping above my head yanked me back into the present, and I glanced at the lake stretching out before me. Repositioning myself on the bench, I dropped my hat back over my eyes. I could still grab a little sleep before we docked.

As I drifted off, I wondered if I would be able to let the past lie when I faced my sister.

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Friday, April 10, 2009

Death of a Dancer - first chapter


Chapter One

I ’M NOT SURE WHY I THOUGHT A TRIP TO NEW ORLEANS WITH MY nephew would be a simple thing. I should have known better.

When I first promised to take Frank to the city, the journey had still been months away and I’d been trying to help him through one of life’s early disappointments. He’d discovered that his childhood idol, Colonel Jedidiah Gilmore—world-renown adventurer and writer—had a propensity for lying; and the trip just seemed like the thing to offer to cheer him up. As soon as the school year ended, however, he was at my heels like a starving pup until I gave in. So, in June of 1925, the two of us traveled across Louisiana all the way from the Texas border to New Orleans.

The long trek started with a boat ride from Marshall’s Bayou to Orange, Texas, where we waited overnight at the dock. Cool air blowing in off the water held the mosquitoes at bay as we stretched out on wooden benches, using our bags as pillows. Too excited to sleep, Frank kept me up most of the night asking questions about New Orleans and my brief career there as a policeman.

Shortly after daybreak, we washed up at the train station and ate a little bread with fig preserves from the sack of food my sister-in-law had fixed for us, then settled into a car near the end of the train to enjoy the gentle rhythm of the Southern Pacific line. As it was Frank’s first train ride, I gave him the window seat. Anticipation and the change in scenery kept him occupied and gave me a chance to catch up on a little sleep. I tipped my bowler over my eyes and stretched my legs out in front of me.

The seats across from us stayed empty until just outside Baton Rouge, when the Coffers boarded. Mrs. Coffer, a round, rosy woman, sat across from Frank, and her daughter Amelda took the seat facing me. Amelda, probably twelve or thirteen, was just old enough to find Frank interesting and spent most of the trip casting furtive glances in his direction. He didn’t seem to notice her attention as he twisted his cap in his hands and stared out the window.

“Can you believe how dreadfully hot it is?” Mrs. Coffer asked me.

“No, ma’am.”

“And the way they crowd us into the train these days, like so many cattle. It’s just disgraceful.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“If the trip were any longer, I would insist on better accommodations.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The one-sided conversation continued for nearly an hour until the woman ran out of things to complain about. She turned her attention to her daughter’s attire, retying bows and straightening sleeves.

As we finally pulled into Union Station in the heart of New Orleans shortly after four in the afternoon, passengers, anxious to be released from the crowded cars, jumped up to gather their belongings from overhead racks. Amelda Coffer stood on tiptoe to retrieve a carpetbag. The train lurched, and she nearly tumbled into my lap. I caught the startled girl by the shoulders and righted her.

“My word, child, sit down.” Mrs. Coffer grabbed her daughter’s wrist and yanked her back into the seat. “There’s no need to rush around like common folk.”

“Aw, Mama,” Amelda protested, trying to free herself from her mother’s grip without drawing too much attention.

Mrs. Coffer shook her head and frowned in my direction. “These children today. I don’t know what gets into them.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said, “I couldn’t agree more.” I stood up, removed the carpetbag and handed it to the girl with a wink. “They’re a wild bunch.”

Amelda reddened and smiled at me as her mother continued to frown.

“Come on, Frank,” I said, “let’s go.”

My nephew, whose nose had been pressed to the window for the last hour of the trip, jumped up and hit his head on the rack. Ducking, he winced, nodded quickly to the Coffers and took his bag from me. He must have been too excited about arriving in New Orleans to notice Amelda. My guess is he'd inherited his father's single-mindedness.

As soon as I stepped from the train onto the freshly swept platform, I had to smile. The city waited, as if nothing had changed since I’d left almost a year earlier. Heat carried scents of shellfish, jasmine and ladies’ perfumes, and hoards of people rushed to and from trains. Ahead, the massive brick station sprawled over a city block, and arched doorways beckoned like the arms of a woman. I took a deep breath, catching whiffs of freshly cut grass. Steam hissed from the train behind me, momentarily overrunning voices raised in cheerful salutes and wailing farewells.

A tearful woman stood at the edge of the shadows and waved to a man walking to a departing train, and I suddenly remembered the day I’d left New Orleans. A knot of guilt and sorrow rose in my chest, but I pushed it down, determined not to let anything sour my return. I couldn’t help what had happened, and I wasn’t there to relive it.

I glanced back at Frank and found him frozen in place, trying to take it all in, his eyes as wide as china cups. Grabbing his sleeve, I moved him in front of me. The last thing I needed to do was lose my fifteen-year-old nephew on the first day. My brother Alcide would have killed me…slowly.

I guided Frank through the crowds to the well-dressed, smiling man who waited at the end of the platform.

“Ty,” I called.

He waved then grabbed my hand in both of his as we reached him.

“Dassas Cormier,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d ever see you again.”

“You know better than that,” I told him, squeezing the hand of a man I’d sincerely missed.

“Maybe so, but I sure was surprised to get your letter.”

Tiberius Fuller had been my partner in the New Orleans Police Department for two years. He’d also been my best friend. When I’d written him that we were planning a visit, he’d responded immediately.

Ty gave me a quick once-over and his smile broadened. I’m sure mine did the same.

“How was your trip?”

“A little on the long side, but not bad.” I stepped back. “Ty, this is my nephew, Frank Cormier. Frank, this is Ty Fuller, the best patrolman in New Orleans.”

The two shook hands. It hit me, as I watched them exchange greetings, that Frank was well on his way to becoming a man. I’d always thought of him as a lanky boy, shy and bumbling as he followed me around the marsh, but here he greeted a stranger with a nod and firm handshake as if he’d grown up all of a sudden. With a mended pocket on his brown suit, his old boots polished to a glossy shine and the dark Cormier curls sticking out from his cap, I felt like I was looking at a picture of myself when I first left home.

“Are you sure you don’t want to stay with me?” Ty asked.

“I’m sure,” I said. “When I told Miss Sugar we were coming, she wrote back that my old room had just been vacated and she’d hold it for us. The Quarter’s a little seedy, but I thought Frank might enjoy the excitement. Thanks for the offer, though.”

We crossed the brightly polished marble floors of the station with my nephew between us.

“If you change your mind, you know where I am,” Ty said, raising his voice to be heard over the crowd. “And we’re expecting you tomorrow night for dinner. I’m sorry about tonight, but Beth took Martha with her to Mandeville. You sure don’t want me cooking for you.”

I shook my head slowly. “No, we don’t want that. I’d like to live through this trip.”

Ty raised one eyebrow in mock reprimand, and I laughed. It was good to see the man who had helped me through one of the roughest times in my life. He’d been the first one at my side when I accidentally shot an innocent woman, had taken me home and gotten me drunk then stood beside me through the entire review. He’d tried to talk me out of quitting the force, but I couldn’t continue. It had taken months, and the help of my family, to regain control of my life. Now that I was as close to my old self as I figured I’d ever be, I hoped to find a way to thank him.

We emerged from the station and stepped into sunshine that beat ferociously against my shoulders in spite of my clothing.

“You look good,” Ty said.

“Thanks. You, too.”

It was mostly true. At six-one, Ty was my height, and the fifteen years he had on me hadn’t stooped his shoulders at all. His hair was a bit grayer than when I’d left, and he’d put on a few pounds; but he carried himself with the same relaxed authority as always. Still, there was something in his eyes that piqued my curiosity—a sadness or worry, I wasn’t sure which. Maybe both.

We tossed our bags into the back of the his Ford, and I settled Frank beside them. He couldn’t stop gawking long enough to watch where he was going, and had tripped over the curb as we left the station. I climbed into the front beside Ty; and as we followed Rampart, he filled me in on who had left the force, who had been promoted and who was in trouble. I looked back now and then to make sure the boy was still breathing.

Once we crossed the wide expanse of Canal Street, where streetcars rang their bells to encourage horse-drawn carriages along, the streets narrowed; and ancient brick walls rose from the sidewalks, adorned with wrought iron balconies and ivy hanging from baskets. Avoiding barefoot urchins, who laughed as they dashed in front of us, we rattled and bumped over stones and dirt as we wound our way into the French Quarter.

“So, who does the captain yell at now that I’m gone?”

Ty shook his head and grinned. “He hasn’t picked out a new favorite yet, but there are several in the running.”

“Who’s your partner?”

“Greg Singletary.” He answered almost too quickly.

“What’s he like?”

“Green, but he’s a good kid. Still thinks he’s tough. He’ll outgrow it.”


I thought back to the times I’d run into hornets’ nests while trying to show how tough I was and Ty hadn’t said anything about it. Greg was lucky to have him for a partner. Ty had the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon. He was by far the best teacher a young patrolman could have.

“How’s the family?” I asked.

When he looked over at me, I realized I’d hit on something. My stomach tightened.


He was lying.

There had always been tension because of Beth’s parents. They didn’t like the idea their precious society daughter had married a lowly patrolman. Things had gotten better after Julia was born, but they were never great. Still, there was something more going on than that. Before I could ask, we’d completed the short trip from the station, and he steered the car to the curb at the corner of Dauphine and St. Ann.
“You are going to eat with us, aren’t you?” I asked.

“Of course.”

I practically had to drag Frank out of the motorcar; he was straining to see the tops of the buildings through the Ford’s side window. No doubt still in shock over the number of people and structures, he straggled along behind us as we rounded the corner and walked through the doorway of the brick wall concealing the courtyard of the boarding house from the street. Inside, overgrown ferns and pots of assorted flowers hid stray cats, and a fountain in the center trickled water from a marble urn to a school of goldfish.

Miss Sugar, the elderly woman who owned the building and, according to the framed portrait in her drawing room, had once been a dark-haired beauty, tottered from the door with her arms stretched out in greeting. As usual, she wore colors too bright for someone her age. My guess is that her mother was either a gypsy or a voodoo priestess. Her skin, nearly the color of café au lait, suggested the latter.

“My, my! I can’t believe it’s really you, Dassas!”

I leaned over so she could hug my neck. She smelled of lavender, lemon and something sweet I couldn’t quite identify.

When she stepped back, Miss Sugar held my face between her gnarled hands and examined my eyes for several long moments. Then she nodded, smiled and released me. Sometimes I think she can see a person’s soul.

“And who is this handsome young man?” she asked.

Frank, practically hiding behind me, cowered under her scrutiny until I grabbed his arm and pulled him forward.

“This is my nephew, Frank Cormier.”

Miss Sugar held both of his arms and studied his face with her keen black eyes.

“Yes,” she whispered, as mysterious as ever. I’d long since given up trying to figure out what her odd comments meant. She exchanged greetings with Ty and led us into the parlor.

“You know where your room is,” she said to me. “Why don’t you two put your things away while Officer Fuller and I catch up on the latest gossip?”

I led the way back to the courtyard and up the outside stairs. Old wooden steps squeaked in all the familiar places. On the second floor, we passed windows, and doors to some of the other dozen rooms, until we reached the room at the end.
Inside, Frank finally spoke. “This is where you lived?”

“Yes.” I tossed my bag on the bed and left the rollaway for him. “Like it?”

“Yes, sir.” He turned a circle in the middle of the room.

I glanced around at the familiar chiffonier, desk and washstand, placed strategically between oversized windows. One window led to the front balcony and the other overlooked the courtyard. It was, without a doubt, the best room in the eighty-year-old house, if not the largest. Miss Sugar had replaced yellowing curtains with white lace and put a new blue spread on the bed. With the high ceilings, fresh pale-blue paint and newly polished wood floor, the room looked more impressive than I remembered.

“Bathroom is down the hall on the left,” I said.

He spun around. “It has indoor plumbing?”

I nodded as I filled the washbasin from a pitcher. “Lots of places here do.”

“Can I look?”

“Sure, go ahead. And get cleaned up while you’re at it so we can go out. I’m starved.”

“Yes, sir.” He dropped his bag in the middle of the floor and dashed out of the room.

I washed my face then stepped out onto the balcony and surveyed the city I’d fallen in love with years before. Voices filled with laughter, horses’ hooves on stone streets and jazz seeping from hidden rooms made my heart race. At that moment, I regretted my decision to stay in Marshall’s Bayou, even though I knew in my soul that I belonged there.

It took some prodding to get Frank moving—his fascination with everything from the indoor plumbing to the electric lights made him childlike. And Miss Sugar refused to release Ty until she was sure he’d relayed every interesting bit of news.

When we finally hit the sidewalk, I had to work not to whoop with joy. Sunset drenched the buildings in reds and oranges, and moisture filled the air, promising rain before the night ended. Excitement practically crackled all around us.

“Is Sammy still serving gumbo?” I asked.

Ty nodded.

“Good.” I draped my left arm around Frank’s lean shoulders and shoved my right hand in my pocket. “You’re in for a treat. Sammy’s gumbo is even better than your mother’s. But don’t you dare tell her I said that.”

“Yes, sir.”

We walked the block to Bourbon Street, where scantily clad women stood in doorways and leaned over balconies, beckoning to the three of us. Frank gawked.

“And I don’t think you should mention this to her, either.”

He nodded without looking at me.

Piano solos and voices of Negro jazz musicians seeped out into the street from several of the better parlors, blending into a crazy mixture to stir the blood. Music from a full band, drawing early crowds, drowned out everything else as we approached Al’s club, where juice flowed freely in spite of the Volstead Act. I smiled and thought about one of the women who danced inside, a close friend the entire time I lived in New Orleans—Miss Cherry Blossom.

“I should stop in and tell Cherry I’m here,” I said, releasing Frank. “Will you give me just one minute?”

Ty stopped me with a hand on my arm. “She’s not here.”

“She’s not?” I frowned at him. “Where is she?”

Ty’s eyes widened, and then he looked everywhere but at me for several minutes. His hesitancy shoved my heart into my throat.


“Ty, what’s wrong? Where’s Cherry?”

He cleared his throat and looked down. “Dass, she’s dead.”

“What?” Shock pulled all the air from my lungs as I stepped closer. “How?”

Ty glanced around again and lowered his voice. “She was murdered.”

I grabbed his shoulder. “Why the hell didn’t you write me?”

“It just happened last Saturday,” he said. “I was afraid a letter wouldn’t arrive until after you’d left.”

It took a moment to catch my breath, and even longer for the reality to sink in. Cherry was dead. Sweet, kind Cherry.


“How? What happened?”

“She was shot twice, found in her bedroom on the floor.”

“Who did it?”

Ty took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. “She was seeing a thug named Blackie Celon. We picked him up the same day right here.”

“He killed her?”

“That’s what everyone thinks.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “But you don’t?”

Ty jerked his shoulder out of my grasp. “I don’t know, Dass. I don’t know what happened to her. All I know is that she’s dead.”

He started away slowly with Frank at his side, giving me time to recover and catch up.

Suddenly, my beautiful city felt dark and cruel.


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Saturday, April 04, 2009

Murder in Marshall's Bayou - first scene

This is the opening scene of the first Dassas Cormier Mystery Series book, Murder in Marshall's Bayou. If you like it, click here to get a signed copy from the author!

Chapter One

Marshall's Bayou, Louisiana
September 26, 1924

I never thought I’d look forward to returning to Marshall’s Bayou. Nothing ever happened there. Even when the rest of the world was listening to jazz and racing around in motorcars, I knew I’d find everything at home just as it had been the day I left.

Leaning over the side of the boat, watching the black water slip by, that thought was somehow comforting. I was twenty-four with the bitter taste of duty fresh in my mouth—swearing I’d never return—when I left the marsh right at the end of the war. Burying two brothers has a way of making things bitter. Especially when I was the one who wanted to go, and I was the one left behind.

Yet, five years later I returned home, not as Dassas Cormier, conquering hero, saver of damsels, civilization and decency. No. I returned as Dassas, failed cowboy, failed roughneck and, most recently, failed lawman. I rode the mail boat with my tail between my legs.

If there had been some way to return in the middle of the night I would have. But there wasn’t. Determined not to look like a thief slinking in, I climbed up and balanced on the side of the boat as it approached the waiting group, then I hopped onto the ancient dock and tied the rope to the cleat as if I didn’t have a care in the world. I even tipped my hat and flashed my best smile at Widow Clawson and her daughter, Celia.

I must admit, Celia had changed for the better. The last time I’d seen her, she had been a towheaded kid dragging a tattered doll by the hair. Now she was a blossoming young lady with curves a little too full to be stylish. She batted her eyelashes in response to my attention.

“Dassas Cormier, you dirty dog! Get your ass over here and let me look at you.” The dock shook under Harley Herbert’s weight as he marched toward me. Realizing he’d spoken a bit too loudly, he reddened and muttered an apology to the ladies for his language before grabbing my shoulder and hauling me into Theriot’s.

Theriot’s dance hall was dark and dusty, as if abandoned; but Buddy Theriot leaned on the bar, a rag draped over his substantial shoulder, and Isaac Broussard sat on a stool, smiling as usual. If not for a few gray hairs on the two of them, I would have sworn I had stepped back into an afternoon in 1918. The huge mirror behind the bar with the reclining woman etched into the center was still intact. It had always been considered a capital offense to break that mirror, no matter how serious the fight.

“My word, I can’t believe it. The travelin’ boy is back,” Buddy said. “You too good to drink with us now?”

“Of course, he ain’t,” Harley answered. “Whiskey’s on me.”

“Whiskey?” I asked, glancing around. Theriot’s wasn’t as well-hidden as most speakeasies.

“Sure,” Harley said. “Who’s going to stop us? There ain’t no law around here no more.”

“What happened to Red?” I asked.

“Dead,” Buddy said, shaking his head slowly. “Shot and left to die out in the marsh.”

My stomach clenched at the news. “When?”

“About two weeks ago.”

“Who did it?”

“An escaped convict from Texas.”

“They caught him?”

“No, but he robbed the bank in Orange four days before Red was killed.” Buddy sighed. “Now we can’t find a soul who’s willing to wear the badge.”

The thought of Red’s death hit me hard. I had fond memories of the burly redhead who’d been the only law in Marshall’s Bayou since before I was born. He’d helped me out of a scrape or two and even taken me under his wing when I was a kid.

“I don’t suppose you’d be interested?” Buddy eyed me strangely.

Bien sûr,” Isaac said. “You have the experience.”

I shrugged. “I’ll think about it.”

My three drinking partners exchanged meaningful glances as Buddy filled a shot glass and placed it in front of me.

Now, I had no intention of ever wearing a badge in Marshall’s Bayou. Or anywhere else, for that matter. But I was a firm believer in keeping all options open as long as possible. That was the only reason I didn’t turn the offer down flat.

I raised my glass and downed the contents. Whatever it was they called whiskey was liquid fire in my throat. I cringed, trying not to gasp.

“What did you make this out of,” I croaked, “sugar cane?”

Harley slapped my back, nearly sending me to the floor. “Hell, no! We keep the sugar cane gin for important guests. I call this the cow piss special. Nice color, no?”

His comment sent everyone into a fit of hysteria—they were a few shots ahead of me. It felt good to laugh with old friends.

I tried not to think about Red Doucet.

We talked about Isaac’s family and Buddy’s business. The group showed me the trapdoor behind the bar that would be used to dump the stash if the law ever appeared. I wasn’t sure the trapdoor actually worked, but it was good in theory.

Several drinks later, my courage sufficiently boosted, I decided to start on the final leg of my journey. I was sent off with a round of cheers.

It was hard for me to remember the marsh with any fondness when I was away from it. I’d think about the long, hot nights with mosquitoes buzzing in my ears and the miserable, sticky days of cutting hay. Sweat glued the hay to my neck and arms, and every movement worked the dried stalks a little farther into my skin. It was wretched work.

So why, then, was it all so beautiful? Maybe it was the alcohol, I didn’t know. Whatever it was, I felt like I was seeing the marsh for the first time.

The trail from the dock followed the bayou then turned east for a quarter-mile. A flock of red-winged blackbirds led the way, clinging to the taller blades of marsh grass while waiting for me to catch up. Heavy clouds had rolled in from the Gulf, sending waves of shade along the trail to cool the air; and the long, low call of a gator broke through the insect noise. The short grass was greener than emeralds, and the thick, salty air filled my lungs. By the time I stepped into the yard, I was smiling.

I stopped, dropped my bag to the ground and studied the house. What was different? The pecan and fig trees were a little bigger, and the paint was fresh, but there was something else. It took a few moments to realize it was the roses that made the picture perfect. Mama’s roses, so long forgotten, bloomed again along the side of the house. It had to be Becky’s touch.

“Daddy! Someone’s here!” The voice belonged to my nephew, Frank. He had been a child when I left. I was stunned to find him a young man already.

I grabbed my bag and continued toward the house.

“Well, I’ll be. Dass!” Becky hurried down the steps and threw her arms around my neck. She was the same slender woman I remembered—motherhood certainly hadn’t ruined her figure or dampened her spirit. I’d always envied my brother.

“I can’t believe Al didn’t tell me you were coming.” She held my arms and looked up at me.

“It’s not his fault,” I said. “He didn’t know.”

“Then why on earth didn’t you write us? We’d have been at the dock to meet you.”

“I didn’t know I was coming myself until I started out. If you don’t have room…”

“Don’t be a goose,” Becky said. “We always have room for you and you know it.” She nodded to the young man who stood on the top step with his hands in his pockets. “Frank, come down here. You remember your Uncle Dassas.”

Frank shook my hand and tried not to stare. He had his mother’s black eyes, a head full of the Cormier brown curls and a firm handshake.

“It’s good to see you, Frank,” I said. “I won’t mention how much you’ve grown since I saw you last.”

“Yes, sir.” Turning, he took my bag.

“And this,” Becky said, pulling a smaller child out from behind Frank, “is your niece, Chloe. Say hello, Chloe.”

“Hi.” The child was a third the size of her brother, and a perfect replica of her mother. She had been born shortly after I’d left.

“Hi there, Chloe.” I touched her rosy cheek, and she smiled at me. Her smile warmed my heart.

“Any more?” I asked.

Becky grinned and grabbed my hand to lead me inside. “Only one.” In the front room, she lifted a toddler from the floor and handed him to me. “This is Fred.”

The boy had hair as orange as any I’d ever seen. He grinned as he tried to pinch off my nose.

“Well, now, that’s a sight and a half.”

I turned to find Alcide standing in the doorway, fists on his hips. When I tried to shake his hand, my brother grabbed my shoulders and hugged me, careful not to flatten his son between us.

“It’s sure good to see you,” Alcide said. “Why in tarnation haven’t you written?”

I felt bad enough for my lack of correspondence; there was no excuse.


“Oh, what difference does it make now?” Becky asked. “I’ll put the coffee on. You two sit at the table.”

Alcide was the brother closest to me in age, and the only one left alive. He’d made it back from overseas without visible injuries, but there were scars, nonetheless. He moved slower than he had before the war, and there was a sadness in his eyes. He led the way to the dining room.

As soon as we were alone, Alcide leaned forward with his elbows on the table. “Dass, are you in some kind of trouble?”

When I frowned, he said, “It doesn’t matter if you are. I just want you to know you can always stay here.”

I shook my head. “Thanks, Al, but I’m not in trouble. At least, not the kind you’re talking about.”

“What, then?”

“It’s nothing,” I said. “Really. Just some things I have to sort out.”

He nodded. “I’m here if you need me.”


Becky’s coffee was even better than I remembered. We sat and talked well into the night.