Relentless Pursuit Excerpt

Secrets of Roux River Bayou Series #3


Sax Henry carefully removed the dog-eared photo from his wallet and took another drink of tonic water.  Why did he hang on to this old snapshot? Twenty-eight years would probably have changed her beyond his recognition. He couldn’t even remember the sound of her voice—only her haunting cries for help. If only he’d stepped up and done something instead of turning up the music and pretending to be somewhere else. Coward!

His ex-wives told him that he should see a shrink—that his misplaced guilt made him a slave to the past and unable to enjoy the present. But they weren’t the ones saddled with the nightmares. And the regret. And the emptiness.

Sax tipped his glass and drank the last of the tonic water. He crunched an ice cube, aware of the blue and gold lights flashing on his wall from the Burgess Hotel across the street. He glanced out the window at the blazing western sky, which almost seemed to bubble like hot lava as the sun dipped below the horizon in the Big Easy. His band was on at ten. He would have to leave for the club soon.

He set the photo on the coffee table, then got up and turned down the air conditioner another five degrees. He reached in the closet and took out the navy blazer he wore on stage and spotted two bronze urns on the top shelf. Even now, his parents were a powerful presence. He couldn’t decide whether to scatter their ashes in the gulf—or dump them in the landfill.  So there they sat in the dark. Seemed fitting.

He pushed the door shut with his foot and poured another tonic water. So what if the guys in the band razzed him about being a teetotaler?  Hadn’t he seen firsthand what booze could turn a man into? He was a failure on many counts, but that wasn’t one of them. Every time he had entertained the idea of taking a drink, his hand would shake and he could smell whisky and vomit—and almost feel a fist slam against his cheek.

He set his glass on the coffee table and flopped on the couch, then picked up the photo and held it gingerly with his thumb and forefinger. What had his sister done with her life? Did she ever marry? Have kids? Or was she turned off by men?  Could he blame her? What did she see when she closed her eyes? Surely her nightmares were worse than his.

He lifted his gaze to the shiny sliver of moon held in the night sky by the arms of gravity. What kind of all-knowing, ever-compassionate being could allow innocent children to be victims?  That was a long time ago. He wasn’t a victim anymore. And he didn’t need God.  If judgment day was real, he would surely go to hell. Fine with him, as long as he got the chance to tell almighty God what he thought of Him first. And ask why he’d been born.  He really wanted to know.

He couldn’t keep a wife. Couldn’t father a child. Couldn’t hold a real job. Didn’t have any close friends. Most of his life, he’d survived in an aching vacuum with no reason to get out of bed in the morning except for his music. Hadn’t the saxophone been his drug of choice for years? But even that wasn’t enough anymore.   He wanted peace—whatever it took to get it. However long it took to find it.

He had to find his sister and make things right. If she refused to see him, he would just keep coming back. Even if she hurled insults and pummeled him with raw anger. Or simply slammed the door in his face.  He would deal with it. But unless he confronted her and accepted responsibility for leaving her to fend for herself, how could he hope to silence the guilt?

Sax carefully put the photograph back in his wallet and picked up the Post-it note with the name and address of a woman his sister had worked for. The gig at the club would be over in three more nights. Then he’d have two weeks off before they started a road tour. He would drive up to Les Barbes and find this woman. What if it proved to be another dead end? What if it didn’t? It took him three years to get this far.  What did he have to lose?

Sax rose to his feet and stood at the window.  Even if his sister didn’t want a relationship with him, shouldn’t she be told their parents had died and have a say in how their ashes were dispersed?  He owed her that much. The cruel irony was almost laughable:  their father had gotten drunk and staggered out in front of a delivery truck, and died without ever knowing what hit him. Yet their mother, after enduring years of marital abuse, had suffered for six months with lung cancer and died a horrible death. God was just full of surprises.

All Sax had now was three ex-wives, the scars of childhood, a mountain of guilt, and two bronze urns in the closet.  He had to find his sister.

Chapter 1

Zoe Broussard burst into the kitchen at Zoe B’s Cajun Eatery and turned on the radio, motioning for her husband to come.

“Pierce, you need to listen to this,” she said. “Hurry!”

Pierce Broussard, clad in his chef’s hat and apron and dusted with flour up to his elbows, grabbed a hand towel and walked over and stood beside her.

“What’s going on, babe?”

“Jude’s on the courthouse steps with Police Chief Casey. He’s going to talk to the media any second. Something big is happening.” She turned up the volume.

“We’re live on the steps of the Saint Catherine Parish Courthouse. Sheriff Jude Prejean and Police Chief Casey Norman have just come outside and are standing in front of the microphones.  We’re told Sheriff Prejean will be the official spokesperson.  The sheriff’s taking the mike now. Let’s listen …”

“I’m going to comment on a developing situation, but neither I nor Chief Norman will be taking questions at this time. During the past ninety minutes, eight residents of Saint Catherine Parish have been admitted to the emergency room at Hargrave Medical Center with symptoms consistent with cyanide poisoning. Seven of the victims were treated with a cyanide antidote kit and are expected to recover. I’m sorry to report that one fatality has occurred. Four-year-old Dominic Corbin, the son of Joshua and Margot Corbin of Les Barbes, was pronounced dead on arrival at the ER.”

Zoe sucked in a breath and couldn’t seem to exhale, her mind’s eye clearly seeing the adorable dark-haired, blue-eyed, playmate of her daughter, Grace.

Pierce put his arm around her and pulled her close.

Local health officials are working to pinpoint the source of contamination and have discovered that all the victims had eaten at the food bar at Marcotte’s Market—“

Police Chief Norman cupped his hands and whispered something in Jude’s ear.

Jude paused, visibly shaken, and then continued. “We’ve just been informed that two more people have now been admitted to the emergency room at Hargrave after eating at the food bar at Marcotte’s.  Chief Norman and I want to emphasize that there is no reason to assume this was a criminal act. The food bar at Marcotte’s Market has been closed, and health officials are working with us to determine which food item or items were contaminated. The most important thing each of you can do is to remain calm and wait for updates on the situation. That’s all I have to say for now. Chief Norman and I will come back with new information as we have it.”

Tears spilled down Zoe’s cheek and she struggled to find her voice. “I-I can’t believe Dominic is dead. Margot and Josh must be devastated. How are we going to explain to Grace that her playmate isn’t coming back?”

Pierce exhaled. His silence spoke more loudly than any words he might have uttered.

“I sure hope our food hasn’t been contaminated,” Zoe said. “What if it has? We could be serving our customers poison.”

Pierce held her face in his hands and wiped her tears with his thumb. “Don’t assume this goes beyond the food bar at Marcotte’s. Jude didn’t give any indication that’s the case.”

“He may not know yet!”

“Zoe, calm down. The authorities will keep us informed.”

“Sure, after the fact.”

Pierce kissed her cheek. “I can’t worry about what might happen. I’ve got a whole stack of orders to fill. We need to stay calm, stay informed, and keep this place running. We can’t afford to take a financial hit in the middle of tourist season.”

Zoe’s heart sank. “Oh, no! I just remembered I’ve got a carton of fresh fruit I bought at Marcotte’s. I don’t want the kids eating it. Or any of their produce either. I’m going to run upstairs and tell Maddie.”

“Babe, there’s no need to panic. Calm down.”

“How am I supposed to calm down after what happened to Dominic? I’d rather be safe than sorry.”

* * *

Zoe pushed open the front door of her apartment and went into the kitchen. Her daughter Grace was seated at the table, her son Tucker, in his high chair—both eating pieces of fresh fruit.

Zoe snatched the fruit from each child and tossed it in the garbage disposal, aware of the startled expression on the babysitter’s face.

“Mrs. Broussard, what are you doing?” Maddie Lyons took a step back.

Zoe grabbed some wet wipes and handed them to Maddie. “Here, wipe Tucker’s face and hands. Hurry!” She plucked several more and wiped Grace’s face and hands herself.

Tucker started to cry.

Zoe went over to his high chair, picked him up, and rocked him from side to side. “Shhh. It’s okay, sweet boy. Mommy didn’t mean to raise her voice.”

“What’s going on?” Maddie said. “Why did you throw out the fruit? Did I do something wrong?”

“No, honey. Something awful’s happened.” Zoe paused and caught her breath, relieved to see her children were all right.  She told Maddie everything she’d heard on the news.

“Dominic is dead?” Maddie whispered. “Just like that?” She dropped into a chair, her eyes brimming with tears. “How could this happen?”

“That’s what the authorities are trying to figure out.”

Grace Broussard looked from Maddie to Zoe, her innocent topaz eyes questioning, her eyebrows furrowed. “Why are you sad?”

Zoe wondered if she should wait to tell Grace about Dominic. Would there ever be a right time? What if she heard it from someone else?  Or on the news?

“Sweetie, Mama needs to tell you something, and you have to be very brave, okay?” How could Zoe expect a four-year-old to grasp what she was about to say? She handed her son to Maddie and went over to Grace, bending down next to her chair.

“Dominic ate something that made him very sick. He died.” Zoe heard herself say the words but felt as if someone else were talking. “He’s in heaven with Jesus.”

“When is he coming back?” Grace cocked her head.

Zoe swallowed the emotion that she refused to unleash in front of her children and stroked her daughter’s long, blond curls.  “He’s not coming back, sweetie. Remember we talked about this. People don’t come back when they die. But someday we will go to heaven and see Jesus. And then we’ll see Dominic again.”

Grace’s face fell, her little mouth drooping. She slid out of her chair and went into the living room and came back with a drawing. “Domi made this for me.”

“May I see it?” Zoe asked.

Grace handed the drawing to Zoe. “The boy and girl is Domi and me, and the big heart is because he loves me lots and lots.”

A tear spilled down Zoe’s cheek and she quickly wiped it away. “What a beautiful reminder of him. I think we should put this in a frame and hang it in your room. Would you like that?”

Grace gave a firm nod.

“I can’t believe any of this,” Maddie said. “What are you going to do about the eatery?”

“Stay open. The authorities haven’t indicated the threat goes beyond Marcotte’s food bar.”

“Then why did you rush in here and throw out the fruit?” Maddie said.

“Because I’m not taking any chances with my children. Until we know more, I want you to feed them packaged snacks and only canned fruit. I’m sure the milk and cheese are fine. They’ve already had some.”

“I was just about to fix their lunch,” Maddie said. “How about grilled cheese sandwiches, frozen lima beans, and the canned pears I saw in the pantry?”

“Perfect.” Zoe patted Grace’s knee, then got up and took Carter from Maddie and put him back in his high chair, her heart lightened by the big grin on his face. She glanced over at Grace. “You and Tucker eat only what Maddie gives you—so you won’t get sick like Dominic.”

“Why did the food make him sick?” Grace’s eyes were wide and round, her face framed with blond curls—the picture of innocence.

We don’t know yet,” Zoe said. “Something bad got in the food bar at Marcotte’s Market.  The sheriff and important people who understand poisons will tell us what happened. Until then, I don’t want you to eat anything unless Maddie says it’s okay.”

Grace heaved a sigh. “I wish Domi didn’t die.”

“Me too, sweetie. We need to pray for his Mommy and Daddy. They’re very sad.” Zoe walked over to the fridge and took out all the produce she had bought at Marcotte’s and put it in a trash bag. I’ll drop this in the dumpster out back. I guess I’d better get back to the dining room and keep things operating as normally as possible.”

“I’ll keep the kids safe,” Maddie said. “I still can’t believe what happened to Dominic.”

Zoe paused for a moment to let the severity of the situation sink in.  She dreaded facing Margot and Josh. How would she have ever dealt with it, had Grace or Tucker been the victim?