I am not apologizing for giving you another archive story. I WOULD only this time there is a method to the madness!
This is a Dani/Mori story. I had tried a million times to get a story with these two characters off the ground but it never took. That original story was supposed to take place with them in college and build up their cases. I have no clue why I can't figure out how to write about their first case, but at least you have at least one of their cases.
It began as an invitation from a friend I had drifted from over the years. An invitation for me and my husband to join her and her family for Mardi Gras and celebrate it the way only a small, close knit community can.
It came a good time for us. Mori had recently wrapped up a very lucrative case for a wealthy family who had ‘misplaced’ the new will of their recently deceased matriarch. Though some members of the family weren’t so thankful to Mori, others had made sure his fee was paid in full.
As a private investigator, Mori was in demand. In such demand, that he’d had cases nearly nonstop for the last year and more than a few were out of state. The job was obviously starting to wear on him. He needed a vacation and we had extra money for the bills and the trip. Instead of penciling in a new client, I took my job as his secretary and mixed in my privileges as a wife. For one week would be in Linville, a small Southwestern Louisiana town that was the exact opposite of our busy life in New Orleans.
It sounded perfect. Had I known what we would be getting into, I would have stayed in the chaos that is New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Had I thought about the fact that trouble follows Mori around like a loyal dog, I would have penciled in that new client. I would have done anything except accept that invitation.
Mori pulled our green and silver hybrid car in front of the white two-story house at precisely 5:30 pm. The smile on his lips told me he was pleased with himself. He had mapped out the trip from our home to my former college roommate’s house to the second. Had we taken the way I found on the online mapping sites, we wouldn’t have gotten here even close to time and we both knew that. Mori had pulled out paper maps and drawn up three alternate routes the online sites hadn’t even considered.
Such was life with Mori. You could make all the suggestions you wanted, but in the end you ended up following Mori’s carefully constructed plans. I would have been exasperated, but this was part of what Mori did. Mori knew everything, always had and always would. I kept my sigh to myself and was thankful he wasn’t the ‘I told you so’ kind.
“Dani!” Before I was able to completely step out of the car I found myself enveloped in a hug from a woman who didn’t look big enough to use the force she was currently squeezing the air from my lungs with.
“Steph!” I returned the hug with all the force I could.
We pushed out of the hug to look at each other. Stephanie Benoit, formerly Stephanie Fontenot, had been my best friend and college roommate for all the years it had taken to make it through our degrees.
“Has it really been five whole years?” Steph looked at me for confirmation.
“The last time I saw you was when you had to be rushed to the hospital.” I smiled at the memory. “Talk about a wedding to remember.”
A small red haired girl ran off the porch and down the steps towards us.
“Speak of the devil.” Stephanie rolled her eyes and ruffled the girl’s frizzy hair. “Here’s the very reason you were short a bridesmaid in the middle of your ceremony.”
I looked down at the child in disbelief.
“That’s Madeleine?” I could barely believe my own eyes. “Steph, it really has been too long.”
“Maddie, tell Miss Dani and…” Stephanie looked up for Mori. Her puzzled look made me look around too.
My husband was apparently MIA. I walked around the small car and found him, crouched down and staring off with his head cocked to one side.
“Mori?” I crouched down with him and cocked my own head to match his line of sight. “What are we looking at?”
He pointed at an angle towards a fenced in pasture.
“That horse is apparently giving birth.” Mori said. “I’m afraid she’s having a bit of difficulty.”
“Josephine!” A high-pitched voice squealed and ran past us. “Momma! Josephine!”
Stephanie came around to our side of the car. I stood but Mori held his odd position.
“What’s going on?” Stephanie asked. “Where’s Maddie going?”
“I believe she’s going to assist Josephine with her birthing.” Mori said from the ground. “The child is a bit young for that, I believe.”
Stephanie’s eyes grew wide and she sucked in a breath.
“We knew it was coming, but had hoped—“ Stephanie ran off towards the house without finishing her sentence. “Hank! Hank, come quick! Josephine’s started without us.”
Stephanie ran off in the direction Maddie had so recently taken.
A man I should have known but had trouble recognizing jumped off the porch without using the steps and raced towards the pasture.
“Are we sure that was Hank?” I asked.
“Same man, only five years older and I’d say about fifty pounds heavier. The lack of hair on his face and head was a bit different, but that was indeed Hank Benoit.” Mori finally stood and began walking at an unhurried pace towards the trunk of our car.
I looked from the car to the pasture.
“Don’t you think we should go over?” I asked. “You said the horse was having problems.”
“What would we do there?” Mori pulled a bag from the trunk while looking at me. “You nor I know much that could be useful to them. Besides that, the foal won’t make it through the birthing process. The mare may not either.”
He shook his head sadly and continued to pull things from the trunk.
“You could tell all that from here?” I looked towards the pasture. I could make out the horse that was apparently a cause for concern. I could also make out no less than four people, not counting little Maddie. The knot of people were in various places around the mare. An odd shape protruded from her rear and two of the four people were back there doing something hands on.
“The foal was being born breach.” Mori said. “You can see from here that it’s not the head that came out first.”
Mori, on top on knowing everything, also had extremely excellent vision. Sometimes I wondered what ever made me think I could be married to someone like him without developing complexes.
“I could also see something liquid coming from the mare.” Mori continued. “I can’t be sure from this distance, but I believe it to be blood. I suspect a uterine artery rupture. She’ll prolapse once they get the foal out.”
“I thought you said you knew nothing that could be useful.” I teased.
Mori tilted his head and looked out at the pasture.
“Just because I know what’s wrong doesn’t mean I know how to fix it.” He said. “They’ll discover the problems for themselves. If they can save the foal and mare, they will. I have no experience with horses, therefore, I have no useful knowledge.”
Mori handed me a small case while he shuffled the weight of two bags in his other hand. We were supposed to stay for the entire week. That meant I packed enough clothing for a month. The small bag Mori had just given me was his own. Inside I knew would be everything he needed for the entire week and maybe a few emergency extras. I never figured out how to be an efficient packer like he was.
I looked back towards the house to see a tall, fit looking woman at least twice my age standing on the porch. Unlike Hank, I had no trouble recognizing the woman.
“Miss Jill!” I forgot about the distressed horse and focused on Stephanie’s mother. I had come out to visit Stephanie in Linville many times during our years of college and the few after that we stayed in constant touch. Miss Jill wasn’t exactly a second mother, but more of an adored aunt.
Jill reached out to wrap me in a tight hug as soon as I got within range. Like Stephanie, Jill had serious power in her small frame. It came from their years of working on farms.
“It’s so good to see you, cher! It’s been so long!” Jill kissed my cheek and looked me over.
Mori smiled as he walked up to the porch. Even he liked Miss Jill. It was hard not to like the woman. She raised three young children and took care of a farm after her husband died. She found she was a natural at horse training and easily took over where her husband had left off.
Hank’s family bred champion racing horses. The families worked well together and it was no surprise when Stephanie and Hank began dating. The house that we were now visiting was the original home that Stephanie had grown up in, the only difference was how much larger it had been built and how much land they had amassed over the years.
“Where did everyone run off to?” Jill looked around after she enveloped Mori in one of her tight hugs. “You don’t have much of a welcoming party.”
“There’s a horse giving birth.” I told her.
“That would be Josephine.” Jill said. “They’ve been waiting for her to drop for at least a week now. She’s our best breeding mare. Always pull champions from her.”
“Do you need to be out there?” I asked her. “They said the horse was having problems.”
Jill shook her head.
“There looks to be more help there than they need.” Jill said. “I’m going to go ahead and get you two set up.”
She took a bag from Mori and walked into the house. We followed without complaint.
Jill walked us through the house that had completely changed since I’d last been in it. She brought us to a room that hadn’t been there years before. It was large and airy with a large four poster bed.
“You two should be comfortable here.” She placed the bag on the bed. “I’ve had the linens washed and the room aired.”
A phone began to ring and Jill pulled out a cell phone.
“You two unpack while I take this.” Jill walked out of the room. “When you’re done I’ll be in the kitchen. That’s more or less in the same place.”
Mori sighed quietly as he walked towards the window. I knew that sigh. I didn’t like that sigh.
“It’s a horse giving birth. There’s no mystery here.” There was warning in my voice. “Relax and stop trying to see cases everywhere.”
Mori turned and walked over to me. He gave me a light kiss on my forehead and hugged me.
“Trouble, even when we do not seek it, finds us without difficulty.” Mori’s cheek rested against my head.
“Who said that?” I asked.
I could feel him smile even though I couldn’t see it.
“I did just now. You could never make a living as a detective.” He kissed me quickly and pulled away before I could hit him.
“Well, it’s good to see you joking around again, even if it is at my expense.” I glowered, but only enough to make him smile wider.
I hadn’t seen him smile like that in over a month. I was hoping this little Mardi Gras getaway would be just what he needed to calm down and get back into his usual mood. I was worried if he’d been on too many more cases he would have burned out.
I walked over to where he was unpacking his clothes. I wrapped my arms around him and hugged him tight. For all the things he did that annoyed me, I loved Mori. He was quirky and brilliant which made him a great detective. He had drive, dedication and an unholy curiosity. Those these qualities kept him in high demand, it also made him vulnerable to breakdowns.
Mori turned me around to face me. His smile was still there but it was a little saddened. He knew what I was thinking.
“This isn’t like last time.” He spoke low, as if he didn’t want anyone else to hear. “I know you won’t let that happen again.”
Mori squeezed my hands and turned back to the bags.
“Go find Miss Jill.” He told me. “I can handle the unpacking. I know you want to catch up with her. Come and get me if I’m not done by the time the others get back from the field.”
I started to protest but thought the better of it. We both knew what the other was thinking, or rather, remembering. Neither wanted to relive those years back when we were still in college. Though Mori was a genius in IQ terms and I was only a little above average, only I finished college.
The first ‘case’ I ever worked with Mori was the one I thought may have been his last. I didn’t want to remember what those professors had done to him. I knew what they did to him and how it would affect him for the rest of his life. I also knew how no matter what, I would always worry about Mori for the rest of his life too.
I found Miss Jill exactly where she said she’d be. In the kitchen she was standing at the stove stirring something that smelled impossibly good.
“God, what is that?” I asked as I walked over towards the stove.
Miss Jill waved a wooden spoon at me.
“Girl, I know you’re not taking to using the Lord’s name in vain in my presence.” She frowned at me, making me feel like I was a little girl being scolded.
“Sorry, but it does smell wonderful.” I gave my best sheepish grin. Miss Jill was a hardcore Catholic woman. She attributed all of her success in life on God and had some ideas it was best to respect.
“That it does.” She smiled at me beatifically to show all was forgiven. “I can’t truly take credit though. Hank cooked this. I’m just making sure it doesn’t burn while he’s out with Josephine.”
I walked closer to the stove. She continued to stir as I watched.
“Crawfish fettuccine.” I nodded my approval.
“Yep, and there’s Cajun garlic bread in the oven.” Miss Jill motioned her spoon below to the glass window of the oven. “That one I can take credit for.”
“I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.” I said. “Not to sound greedy, but how long until the others get back so we can eat?”
As if on cue, I heard the front door open and people walking in. Miss Jill looked towards the noise confused and handed me the spoon.
“Turn the flame on low and make sure it doesn’t stick.” She told me. “There’s no way they’re done.”
I stood where I was and did as I was told. I even used the opportunity to sneak a taste. The fettuccine was delicious and it took all of my self-control not to grab a fork and simply help myself.
Mori walked in and caught me picking up another tightly curled crawfish tail from the wooden spoon. I looked at the food in my hand and offered it to him. He smiled and walked over to eat it. He had barely swallowed it before Hank and a man I didn’t know walked into the kitchen.
“Damn it, Trace, you say it wasn’t you, but someone gave her that laxative.” Hank was clearly angry at the man. “I could smell it on her breath!”
“I know what you’re thinking, but wouldn’t do that!” The man apparently called Trace said. “I wouldn’t hurt any of those animals out there, especially not Josephine! How long have you known me, Hank? You know I wouldn’t do something like this.”
“Yeah, but that was before this year.” Hank shook a finger at Trace. “You were dead set against my buying your family’s ranch.”
“I was.” Trace lifted his hands, palm up. “I hated the idea that my family ranch couldn’t make money anymore and I was pretty bitter for a while when we had to sell out to you, but, Hank, you’re my friend. You let me stay on here and do what I love doing. If you hadn’t have bought the land, I’d probably be doing some office job somewhere to support my family!”
Hank spun to walk away from Trace and for the first time saw me and Mori. We all stared at each other for a moment, unsure of what to say or who should speak first. Luckily for us, Miss Jill came back into the kitchen holding a wet faced Maddie.
“There, there my petite.” She smoothed the little girl’s red curls. “I know you’re sad, and it’s okay to feel that way.”
Even though Maddie’s face showed signs of her having cried hard, she was now very still in her grandmother’s arms. She wasn’t sobbing or crying any longer. Instead, she sat stone faced and stared off into the distance. I was more than a little disturbed by her blank look.
“I’ll wash her face at the kitchen sink.” Miss Jill told Stephanie who had recently joined the crowd in the kitchen. “The rest of you can use the bathrooms to finish washing up and changing before we sit down to eat.”
Miss Jill looked from her son-in-law to Trace.
“You’ll still be joining us, won’t you?” She asked Trace.
The man looked down at the floor then to Hank. It was clear he was uncomfortable.
“Of course he’s staying.” Hank waved a hand as if clearing the air. “We’re all tired and hungry and there’s no reason he should have to go home with an empty stomach after all’s he done today.”
Hank walked out of the room without another word. All eyes followed him. Even Maddie watched her father leave the room.
“I take it the horse didn’t survive the birth?” Mori asked to fill in the silence.
Plenty of sighs went around the room.
“Her foal was born breach and had been stuck in the birth canal before we found him.” Stephanie answered after a few seconds of silence. “If that wasn’t bad enough, after we got the dead foal out, Josephine prolapsed.”
“Prolapse is something that isn’t necessarily deadly.” Mori said.
“Was in this case.” Trace said. “Turns out the foal must have done some kicking around before it died. Josephine had an artery rupture in her uterus. She bled to death.”
Mori nodded but didn’t say anything. He also didn’t happen to mention what we had overheard. Someone had given the horse an overdose of laxatives. I didn’t know what that could do to a pregnant mare, but I was sure it didn’t help the situation any.
I heard Maddie sucked in a breath and we all looked towards her. Her brown eyes were large but at least focused on the here and now. Miss Jill had also washed away all of the tear stains from the girl’s face.
“All of you stop talking about this in front of Maddie.” Miss Jill said. “Go get cleaned up so you can properly entertain your guests.”
Stephanie and Trace walked out of the room in different directions. Neither bothered to defy Miss Jill.
“Come on, love.” Miss Jill picked Maddie up from the counter she had placed the little girl on and set her on the floor. “You can help Maw-maw set the table for dinner.”
Maddie reluctantly followed her grandmother and began helping to set the table. It was a half-hearted attempt with Miss Jill going behind her to reset things, but no one chastised the little girl. It was obvious she was heartbroken over the death of the horses.
By the time everyone had arrived back in the kitchen, Miss Jill, with help from Maddie, me and Mori, had set the table, put out drinks and even placed the serving dishes out. Everything was ready and waiting. My stomach had growled loudly in appreciated several times and I was more than ready to eat when everyone came in.
To my surprise, a new person had popped up to join the group. Stephanie’s younger brother, Cody, came into the kitchen after Stephanie. I raced over to hug him.
“I didn’t know you were here!” I said. “It’s so great to see you! What’re you up to now?”
Cody, who was still younger than me by being in his late twenties, smiled and blushed a little.
“You know, helping out on the ranches, doing this and that.” He said noncommittally.
“As Danielle said, it is good to see you.” Mori said as he stepped forward to shake Cody’s hand. “I’m glad to hear you’ve been staying busy.”
There was an unspoken understanding in Mori’s words. Cody had been something of a black sheep. He’d gotten into trouble numerous times and all too often Stephanie or Miss Jill had to pay to pull him out of one scrape or another.
Cody nodded and walked towards the table.
“Wow, the only one missing now is Joe.” I said to the group around the table. “Where’s he now?”
Miss Jill beamed up at me.
“Joe’s in Africa.” She said. “He’s part of the ‘Doctor’s without Borders’ group now. Africa was his first assignment.”
Joe was something of a point of pride for Miss Jill. He had worked hard and put himself through medical school in much less time than it takes most people to get through.
“What about Rosa and the kids?” I sat down in my place at the table and continued the conversation nearer the food.
“They’re with him!” Miss Jill nearly chirped that out. “Rosa is qualified to home school and they decided to take the kids with them. Oh, they’re having a great time!”
Stephanie smiled at her mother, but Cody scowled. It was clear that he was jealous of his older brother’s success.
“Enough talk!” Hank laughed. “Let’s dig in before the food gets cold! You can talk your tongues off after we say blessing and serve ourselves.”
I needed no other encouragement. I bowed my head quickly and waited for the prayer.
Hank pushed his plate back and smiled broadly.
“If that wasn’t the best crawfish fettuccine I’ve ever made, I don’t know my own name.” He patted his stomach and looked at me and Mori for confirmation.
“I was delicious.” I echoed my approval. “You’re definitely a chef, Hank.”
He waved off my compliment.
“Come on now, Dani.” He laughed deeply. “You know all good southern boys can cook, sometimes better than southern girls.”
Hank reached over and patted Stephanie’s hand in mock sympathy all the while laughing. Steph, who hadn’t been able to boil water properly for as long as I knew her despite her mother’s teaching, laughed good-naturedly.
“Why do you think I married you?” She joked back. “It sure wasn’t for your bank account. Besides, I wanted children one day and I knew I’d have to find someone who could feed them properly.”
They both looked over at Maddie who was pushing her pasta in piles on her plate. It didn’t look like she’d eaten anything.
“Yes, she certainly is a blessing.” Miss Jill said to the unspoken question. “Didn’t think I’d ever get a grandchild from you two, but I’m blessed to have her.”
I looked closer at the sullen little red head. I knew for a fact that Maddie truly was something of a blessing. After two years of marriage, and no less than three miscarriages, Hank and Stephanie were told it was unlikely Steph could ever carry a child to full term. When she got pregnant with Maddie, it was more or less constant doctor care from her own brother and bed rest for nine months. Maddie still came a bit too early, but both mother and daughter came out of the experience alive.
Maddie was also the only child Hank and Stephanie would ever have. Right after Maddie’s caesarean birth, the doctor removed most of Stephanie’s reproductive system. There were too many problems and not enough reason to keep it.
“What’s wrong, honey?” Steph teased Maddie. “Don’t like daddy’s cooking?”
Maddie let her fork drop audibly on the china plate. She crossed her arms and looked directly at her father.
“You killed Josephine and her baby.” She said in a small but serious voice.
All conversation and movement around the table stopped immediately. They all volleyed between Hank and Maddie.
“Honey, daddy explained this earlier.” Hank smiled sadly at his daughter. “Josephine was hurt bad from trying to have the foal and her baby was born dead. It couldn’t get out in time to breathe.”
“Mr. Trace said you wanted to let Josephine out when he wanted to keep her in the stall.” The little girl kept Hank locked in with an accusatory stare. “He said if she’d been in her stall then he would have found her before she got hurt.”
Hank looked up at Trace, who had the decency to look down at his plate.
“I didn’t know she was around when I said that, Hank.” Trace said. “I was just venting. I didn’t mean anything by it. You know how it is, Hank. We’d just lost our best foaling mare. I just got upset. You can understand that.”
Hank shook his head and turned his attention back to Maddie.
“I know you don’t understand this right now, sweetie, but there was nothing daddy could do.” Hank tried to explain. “If I could have saved either of them or both, I would have.”
Maddie knocked over her plastic cup, spilling milk everywhere and making the people around her push back from the table. Maddie herself stood up on the table.
“I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!” The little girl threw as much force as she could behind the words. “You killed Josephine and her baby and I hate you!”
“Maddie!” Stephanie rose from her chair, but Maddie had already jumped off her own and ran out of the room.
“I’ll go talk to her.” Miss Jill said. “You…the rest of you just stay here and finish up.”
Stephanie sighed and sat back down.
“It’s sad, but my child does listen to my mother better than she does to me.” Stephanie shook her head.
“Most children listen to others before their parents.” Mori said.
“No respect.” Cody laughed. “What’s the deal with kids these days?”
Everyone at the table turned to look at him. We knew he was one of the last people to be talking about respecting parents or any authority figure.
“She’s just upset about the horses.” I put in to turn the attention away from Cody. “I take it she was close to that one?”
“Maddie’s attached to all of them.” Trace said. “That child is always out in the stables. She probably knows the horses better than any of us.”
“Upset or not, she has to learn not to act that way.” Hank said. “We’re going to have to teach her not to act out like that.”
Stephanie shot Hank a worried look.
“What did you have in mind?” She asked.
“I say we ground her from the parade tomorrow.” Hank said.
Stephanie shook her head again, but this time she was disagreeing.
“It’s too soon and she’s too young.” Stephanie said. “She loses what she considered a friend and now you want to take Mardi Gras from her? She won’t understand you’re punishing her for her behavior. Let’s wait a little and just talk to her about it.”
It was Hank’s turn to sigh and shake his head.
“How about we sleep on it?” He said.
Stephanie nodded in agreement.
“Good, then that’s settled. How about some tapioca?” Hank smiled again.
Stephanie laughed and Trace groaned.
“You’re still eating that stuff?” I asked. Hank had been addicted to tapioca pudding for as long as I knew him. It seemed some things never changed.
“Yes, he is.” Stephanie said. “But he’s giving it up for Lent, so he has a full bowl of homemade tapioca he has to polish off before Mardi Gras is over.”
“You eat that much and you’re going to get diarrhea.” Cody snickered.
“”That’s disgusting, Cody.” Steph admonished her younger brother. “It’s definitely not dinner table discussion.”
“Despite the consequences, I think I’m up to the challenge.” Hank patted his stomach. “Bring it on!”
By the time we finished dessert, Miss Jill had returned without Maddie. There was a bit more of a strain to the conversation and I don’t think anyone was too upset when we picked up our plates and began clean-up.
Trace dumped his plate into the sink, said his goodbyes rather quickly, mumbled something about needing to get up early and left the rest of us to finish. Hank sighed, handed his own plate over to Stephanie and followed Trace out.
We watched him walk out without saying a word. Personally, I had never met the man before today and didn’t want to get involved in something that wasn’t my business.
“He didn’t do it.” Stephanie didn’t seem as content as I to let the business settle.
“Hank said there was horse laxative?” Miss Jill asked. “He thinks Trace did it?”
“He thinks it’s what probably caused her labor problems. Maybe even caused her to go into labor earlier than she was ready.” Stephanie began putting leftovers in a plastic container.
Miss Jill looked up from the sink to me and Mori.
“You two shouldn’t have to listen to this.” She told us. “We should be telling you what to expect at Mardi Gras tomorrow.”
Stephanie clapped her hands, nearly knocking the spoon out of the pot.
“Hank get to be captaine this year!” She said, putting a French lilt to the title. “Leading the Courir de Mardi Gras! This is his first year as M’sieur Le Capitaine!”
I saw Miss Jill’s face twitch but wasn’t sure what the look was for. She didn’t seem nearly as excited as her daughter that Hank was now given the highest honor in a small town Mardi Gras celebration.
Cody got up from the table and stomped out of the room. A few seconds later I heard a door slam. Hard.
No one acknowledged his departure, so I kept my own mouth shut.
Despite protests, Mori and I began to help clean while Stephanie continued on chatting about the next day’s festivities. I already knew about small town Mardi Gras, but this would be Mori’s first taste of the celebration outside of the big cities. Even thought I knew he knew what would happen the next day, he let Stephanie bubble on about it.
“Oh, the courir is very important!” Stephanie continued. “He’ll lead the riders all through Linville to collect the supplies for the big gumbo they’ll cook at the fairgrounds. Oh, everyone will be waiting just for them!”
Steph continued to tell us about how the entire town closed down on Mardi Gras just to celebrate. While the capitaine rode, would loose his men, in traditional capuchons and masks, to play jokes on their neighbors, try to steal other men’s women, play with the kids and tamper with anything in the yards that wasn't nailed down–disrupting every sense of normality in the hopes of getting the gumbo supplies.
Other townspeople would already be at the fairgrounds dancing to live music and having a good time. After the courir was over and the riders returned, live chickens would be set free on the grounds. They would need to be caught before the gumbo could be made.
Though the Tuesday was the biggest event and the actual day of the celebration, Mardi Gras events had been going on all weekend.
“The old fashioned boucherie was fun.” Steph described with excitement a tradition that most would be too squeamish to consider enjoyable. I, for one, had never taken to hog butchering. “Maddie didn’t seem to like it too much, but she’s still young.”
Miss Jill jumped in to tell us about the big street dance the next day and the parade that night after everyone ate the gumbo and one of the largest king cakes made in the world. There would even be a Mardi Gras rodeo for the first year ever in Linville.
“Almost all of the horses competing in the rodeo this year were either bred or trained by us.” Miss Jill smiled. “I know for a fact that all of the horses ridden by courir members are definitely ours.”
“Nearly every horse in town is one of ours from somewhere down the line.” Hank walked into the kitchen and the conversation. “We’ve got the best and everyone knows it.”
Miss Jill made coffee while the four of us sat down to catch up on old time. At some point Miss Jill excused herself to check on Maddie. We didn’t see her again after that.
“Look how late it is!” Steph exclaimed as she pointed to the wall clock. “Not a single one of us is going to want to get up later on!”
We all followed Stephanie’s finger to see somehow it was now 1:30 in the morning. We didn’t know how we’d lost track of time, but we all agreed we needed to go to bed and soon.
“Can you guys get back to your room alright?” Hank asked. “I know the place has changed a bit since you’ve last been here.”
I yawned and nodded.
“If we get lost, we’ll call for help.” Mori smiled. “Keep your cell phone on you just in case.”
Hank laughed and slapped Mori on the back. When a door slammed, Hank lost his smile as quickly as it had come. He started walking in the direction of the sound, but Stephanie grabbed his arm.
“Let him sleep it off.” She whispered, but not low enough to keep me from hearing. “He’ll get over it if we don’t rile him up.”
Hank put his hand on Steph’s shoulder and patted it.
“Take Dani and Mori to their rooms.” Hank said. “I just want to talk to him. I won’t start a fight. Promise.”
Steph crossed her arms and let Hank walk out of the room. Then she turned to us with a forced smile.
“Just to be safe, I’ll escort you to your room personally.” She began walking in the opposite direction Hank had just gone. “Please to follow me, Madam et M’sieur.”
We followed Stephanie through the dimly lit house without speaking. No one quite knew what to say.
“And here we are.” Stephanie threw open the door as if doing a magic trick. “If you need anything, we’re right down the hall in my old bedroom.”
Steph pointed to a portion of the hallway I still recognized. She gave each of us her signature tight hug and walked down to her room.
I followed Mori into our bedroom and watched him plug his cell phone to the charger. My eyes opened slightly larger as I realized something.
“I left my phone on the kitchen counter.” I said, mostly to myself. To Mori, I added. “Be right back.”
Mori made some noise I didn’t fully hear and began retracing the path we had just taken with Stephanie.
“I know why you’re angry.” I stopped before I went all the way into the living room. “Your father was capitaine back in his day. You always thought when LaBleu retired he’d hand it down to you. You’re mad he passed that honor down to me.”
I backed up a step, unsure of what to do. The living room was the last room before the kitchen. I couldn’t cross through while people were talking, but I was to curious to turn back.
“You didn’t have to accept.” Cody said in a low voice. “You knew that if you didn’t accept, they’d ask me next.”
“No, he wouldn’t have, Cody.” Hank’s voice rose a little. “You’re a loser, always have been. Everyone knows how you nearly ran your family’s business into the ground after your mom retired. They know it took me and Steph to step in to make sure it didn’t go under. What’s your problem, Cody? We pay you good money to do nothing more than blow it on alcohol, gamble and stay the hell away from the business.”
There was a pause in the conversation. I took this opportunity to move closer to the doorway.
“Not this year, brother.” Cody spat out. “You were going to give them that foal for free. You know how much money we make off Josephine and you were going to give the Goddamn LaBleus a foal for free! That’s the only reason why he made you capitaine!”
“They’re the ones who gave us Josephine in the first place!” Hank said. It was clear to me he’d had this part of the conversation before. “They sold us a horse that’s made us more money on one of her foals than most will make in five years! The least we could do is give them one.”
“No, they sold us the horse and now have no claim on her or her foals anymore.” Cody corrected. I didn’t have to see him to tell he was furious. “You know I needed that money!”
“I’m done with this tonight.” Hank sighed. “We both have to get up early tomorrow. After Mardi Gras we’ll figure out how much you owe those people and I’ll get you out of this mess…again.”
Since I didn’t know which direction they would leave in, I walked back towards the bedroom. I knew if I went back without my cell phone, Mori would ask what I’d been doing that whole time.
I heard footsteps coming up fast behind me, so I spun around and began walking towards the living room again. Hank walked towards me, smiling in a strained way. He looked tired.
“Still up?” He asked. “Wandering around like a ghost, I see.”
“Just need to grab my phone from the kitchen.” I said, hoping I didn’t look guilty.
Hank nodded and turned back around.
“I’ll walk you there.” He said. “It’ll give me a chance to grab another spoonful of tapioca.”
I laughed at him.
“You’re really going to finish off that big bowl in the fridge?” I asked.
I had seen the bowl Steph had dished out desserts from. It was at least a foot and a half wide and a foot deep. It had its own special shelf in the fridge.
“Have to.” Hank seemed to calm down now that he was on a topic he liked. “Everyone decided I should give up tapioca for Lent. They said I couldn’t do it, so I’m going to prove it to them. But first I have to get rid of all temptation before then.”
“With everything Steph told me about your duties tomorrow, I don’t see how you’ll finish it off before midnight.” I teased.
“Where there’s a will and all that.” Hank flipped on the kitchen light and headed to the fridge while I went to grab my cell. I was surprised to see I had received a text message.
I opened my phone and the surprise went further. Mori had sent me a text.
Ask Hank if he found the laxative bottle.
I frowned. I didn’t want to ask Hank anything that would upset him, but if I didn’t there was a change Mori would bug me for what was left of the morning.
“Hey, Hank?” I leaned against the counter. “Can I ask a weird question? Actually, it’s Mori’s question, he just wants me to ask.”
Hank was digging into the tapioca bowl and putting a healthy dollop in a smaller porcelain bowl. He waited for me to ask.
“You suspected someone of giving Josephine a horse laxative.” I thought the best way to ask was to get it over quickly. “Did you find the laxative bottle?”
Hank sighed and leaned back on the stove to look at me.
“Mori always could smell a crime a mile away.” Hank shook his head. “No, we didn’t find the bottle. All medications are kept in a special locked room in the barn. I noticed an odd smell on her breath while she was still in labor. After she died, I checked a little more thoroughly. We use a linseed oil-based laxative. Usually harmless, but it can go rancid. She was apparently given some that anyone should have recognized as being past date.”
Hank scratched his cheek.
“That’s what I don’t understand.” He continued. “Whoever did this was trying to hurt Josephine. Though it may not have been enough to cause the problems she had, it sure as hell didn’t help us.”
“You thought it was Trace?” I wondered why I didn’t just text Mori and have him come question Hank so I could go to bed.
“Yes and no.” Hank looked away. “I blamed Trace, but…well, I just don’t see him doing that. I bought out his family’s horse ranch and that could give him good reason to harm my best mare, but I can’t see Trace hurting an animal to get back at me. He’s more the kind to go straight to the source.”
“If you knew that, why’d you blame him?” I asked.
“He has access to the medical supplies.” Hank said. “It was a natural first reaction, but Trace swears he threw out all of the old laxatives. We’re getting a fresh supply on Thursday.”
“But you said you didn’t find the bottle.” I reminded him.
“And I didn’t.’ Hank said. “Trash was picked up this morning. If someone got to the supplies, they did it before the trash was taken.”
I nodded. I was too tired to continue this line of investigation and I already knew I’d be up telling Mori everything I’d heard and listening to him ask me why I didn’t ask more questions. I told Hank goodnight and I was sorry for his loss. I left him still against the stove, staring blankly into his bowl of pudding.
Dawn came far too early for me. It was Miss Jill who knocked on our door to let us know that we had to get up.
I groaned and rolled over to wake Mori, but his side of the bed was already empty. I listened and could hear the sound of running water coming from the adjoining bathroom. Somehow he had gotten up before me.
It wasn’t long before we were all convened back in the kitchen. It was a lot like last night, only this time we were all groggy and reaching for coffee. Maddie was the only one who seemed somewhat chipper.
“I’ve got breakfast cooking now.” Miss Jill said when Mori and I walked in.
Hank walked over to his mother-in-law to steal a piece of bacon. She slapped his hand back.
“This isn’t for you.” She told him. “You have a full bowl of pudding waiting in the refrigerator.”
“Aw, come on!” Hank groaned. “You can’t expect a man to live on tapioca alone!”
“Today I do.” Miss Jill replied. “Hopefully we’ll cure you of that habit after today. You’ll be so sick of the stuff it’ll never come in this house again.”
Steph laughed and went to pull the large green bowl out of the fridge. She held it out in front of her and walked towards Hank with slow steps.
Hank began laughing too.
“Okay, you’ll see.” He pulled the bowl out of Steph’s hands and walked towards the sink.
Hank reached into a drawer and pulled out a large metal cooking spoon. He dipped the spoon into the bowl and brought up a huge chunk of pudding. Opening his mouth wide, he dumped the entire spoonful in and swallowed it.
The face he made wasn’t one of fun anymore. He looked down at the pudding bowl then back at us.
“I don’t know how, but I think this stuff’s gone bad.” He said as he tasted what was still on his lips.
Steph grabbed a small spoon from the drain board and tried a small bite.
“Tastes fine to me.” She said. “I think you’re just trying to get out of eating it all because you know you can’t do it.”
Hank took Steph’s spoon and tried some more pudding.
“I guess you’re right.” He said. “It tastes fine here. That first spoonful though…that was weird tasting.”
Everyone laughed and began getting breakfast so we could start our Mardi Gras celebrations.
We were just finishing up when we heard a knock at the door. Hank jumped up and ran for it. Loud voices could be heard from the entrance way.
“Oh, the co-capitaines must be here!” Steph stood and ran for the living room, returning a few seconds later with a large cowboy hat and an even larger purple, green and gold cape that shimmered.
“The capitaine has to wear this cape.” Steph explained. “He can’t be masked, neither can the co-capitaines.”
She ran off towards the front of the house with the clothing in hand. Maddie stood up from the table and followed her mom.
“We should probably go see them off.” Miss Jill stood and started collecting dishes. She smiled when she looked into the tapioca bowl Hank had been eating straight out of. “That boy sure polished off a huge chunk of it.”
I looked over and saw she wasn’t kidding. The bowl had been nearly full the night before and now a little better than a third was missing. Hank was going to be sure he ate it all before Lent.
Mori glanced over too. He didn’t say anything, but stood up and took the bowl to a kitchen counter.
“You might want to call the police and an ambulance.” He said as he looked at the bowl in better light.
I stood, cold to my core.
“Why?” I asked, knowing the answer.
“Because someone poisoned Hank’s pudding .” Mori said.
On cue, we heard a scream from outside. I ran with the others to see what was wrong while Mori stayed in the kitchen.
Outside, Hank was curled up on the ground groaning and holding his stomach. A knot of men stood around him with Steph kneeling next to him.
“He fell off his horse.” One of the men said when we had gotten closer. “We don’t know what’s wrong.”
Hank began throwing up and convulsing, making the others back away.
“Call an ambulance!” Stephanie screamed. “Call one right now! Hank’s dying!”
Two hours later a sheriff’s deputy came to deliver the news that Hank died. They knew he had died from poisoning but it would take time to figure out exactly what it had been.
Mori and I had spent the last two hours with the sheriff, going over everything that had happened since we arrived. The sheriff of Linville knew Mori, though I couldn’t have told you how, so the man listened to his theories.
Mori had pointed out small reddish specks on the surface of the white tapioca. Though it would need to be analyzed for certainty, Mori assured him it was rust from the syringe used to inject the poison directly into the middle of the pudding mass. Mori also told him how he was sure he knew was the substance was. A massive dose of rancid horse laxative.
“Wait a minute.” I protested. “I talked to Hank about that myself. He said the rancid laxative had a really strong smell. He should have smelled it before eating it if it was the same stuff that was given to the horse.”
Mori shook his head.
“There was more than one bottle.” He explained. “The one given to Josephine was expired and gave off a rancid odor. The one injected into the tapioca was going bad. That’s why Hank could taste something odd but not smell it. It hadn’t turned all the way.”
“Any clues as to who did it?” The sheriff asked. I could hear the hope in his voice.
Mori nodded and stared off into space.
“I know this may be difficult for them.” He began. “But I need you to bring everyone back here so I can interview them.”
“They’re at the hospital right now.” The sheriff knew Mori knew that.
“Yes, and I need them here.” Mori said. “Bring them here and I’ll tell you who your killer is. I need to ask a few questions first.”
The sheriff nodded and walked out of the room. I knew this was unusual for him, but he apparently trusted Mori.
I waited until the sheriff had left the room before saying anything.
“Still can’t figure out which of them did it?” I asked. “If you still have to ask questions, that means you’re not sure.”
“Oh, I know who did it.” Mori said. “That’s never been the problem. I knew from the moment I saw the rust flakes in the pudding bowl.”
I looked at Mori with honest awe. I don’t know why that was always my reaction when he admitted to seeing a solution to a particularly knotty problem. I never exaggerated when I said he knew everything.
“You know who killed Hank?” The shock was clear in my voice.
“Of course.” He replied easily. “Don’t you?”
Mori wasn’t looking at me at that moment, which was good because I was glaring at him. He stared intently at the wall and rubbed his left temple in small circles. My glare disappeared. He may have known who the killer was, but some piece of the puzzle was still missing.
I walked over to him and gave him a brief hug. To my surprise, he reached out and turned me so we were both facing the wall. Mori wrapped his arms around my waist . Usually when he was trying to work out the small problems, he ignored me. I learned quickly that this had nothing to do with his love for me, but that simply, once his brain started working full speed, there was little room in there for anything else. His reaching out to me was something new.
“I can’t see it yet.” Mori sighed and kissed my neck. “I simply don’t know how to go about bringing in the killer. That child…”
He let his voice trail away, but I knew where he was going.
“Don’t stress.” I wrapped my arms around his and hugged back. “You’ll find the evidence. You always do. And then Maddie will know who killed her father. She’ll be thankful for that when she’s older. Steph will be thankful for that now.”
Mori rested his forehead on my shoulder for a second. Then he sighed, released his hold on me and walked away. His shoulders were hunched a fraction of an inch, but I knew this for what it was. Mori was precise. Mori was analytical in everything, including the way he carried himself. This case was bothering him and it had more to do with the fact that both Hank and Stephanie were old friends of ours. What bothered me was the fact I could do nothing to help.
It didn’t take long for the sheriff to corral everyone associated with the case into the living room. I smiled at the effect. It looked like a scene from one of those old-fashioned detective novels. I hope Mori would at least play his part.
Everyone looked around nervously at each other. They knew by now what was going on. One of them was a killer. It seemed to me they were all looking at each other with a fresh set of eyes. They were each suspecting the other. Only one knew for sure what had happened.
“Well, let’s get this over with.” Trace said. “I know they’re suspecting me because I’m not one of the family. I want to say here and now that I did not kill Hank. He may not have been my brother, but I saw him as one.”
“He thought you killed Josephine.” Cody started pointing his finger. “You could have done it because you were jealous of Hank.”
“No animal deserves to be a scapegoat for someone’s anger.” Trace said. “But even if I would have done something that stupid, why would I have used rancid laxative? I have access to the entire storeroom. I could have found something that would definitely have killed her. You on the other hand—“
Cody jumped off the couch he was sitting on.
“Come off it, Cody.” Trace said. “We all knew how you felt when you found out you wouldn’t get a cut from this year’s foaling. By taking Josephine out you were trying to screw with Hank. Then you killed him because he was on to you.”
Miss Jill sobbed softly on from the loveseat where she sat with Stephanie and Maddie.
“Whatever, mom.” Cody turned his attention to his mother. “You never really liked Hank. When he came into the family you got pushed out. I remember you were the one pushing him to polish off that pudding before midnight. You wouldn’t even give him breakfast. Told him he had to eat the tapioca instead.”
I waited for Mori to say something but he sat back and watched the argument. The sheriff looked like he wanted to step in, but followed Mori’s lead in waiting.
“You shut up!” Steph dumped Maddie into her mom’s lap and rose to get face to face with her younger brother. “If anyone killed Hank, it was you. Just admit it so we can finally rid you from our lives!”
“Oh, sis.” Cody clicked his tongue. “Acting all holy around here when you’re just as bad as the rest of us. I know about you and Curtis. Did Hank find out? Is that why you killed your husband? So you could finally be with the guy you’ve been screwing for the last year?”
Steph’s hands trembled and she turned ghost white, but she said nothing. She looked back at her mom and daughter. Miss Jill refused to meet her daughter’s gaze.
“So you all had motive.” The sheriff said. “If you confess you’ll make it easier on yourself, but if you wait for Mr. Mori over here to tell me, it won’t look good on you.”
“Mori doesn’t know anything. “ Cody sat back down and scowled at Mori. “He’s been crazy his whole life and no matter what he tells you it’ll be pure bullshit to make himself look good.”
Mori walked over to the loveseat and put out his hand to Maddie. Miss Jill was reluctant to let her granddaughter go, but eventually relinquished her hold on the child. Mori took Maddie into the middle of the room before kneeling at her level.
“Maddie, are you very sad your daddy’s dead?” He asked the child.
She looked around wide-eyed at the people in the room. Most were shocked by his question but no one tried to stop him.
Maddie continued to stare but said nothing.
“Why’d you give Josephine that medicine?” He asked her.
Maddie’s bottom lip quivered.
“I wanted to help make the baby come out faster.” Maddie said. “Mr. Trace told me that the medicine in the white bottle helped get horses to get stuff out easier.”
Little gasps went through the room.
“Did you give her the whole bottle?” Mori asked.
The little girl nodded.
“I got on a stool and gave it to her. She didn’t like it so I had to put it all in her water so she’d drink it.” Maddie explained.
“You put the whole bottle in there?” Mori asked.
Maddie nodded again.
“So where did you get the medicine you put in your daddy’s pudding?” He asked.
“That’s enough!” Stephanie crossed the room towards Maddie and Mori, but the sheriff put his hand out to stop her.
“Answer the question, Maddie.” The sheriff encouraged the girl.
“I took two bottles out of the trash in case one bottle wasn’t enough to help Josephine.” Maddie said. “When Josephine died, I put some medicine in daddy’s pudding to make him sick on Mardi Gras. He was supposed to get sick and stay in bed all day so he couldn’t have any fun.”
“Where did you put the bottle and the little needle you were using?” Mori asked.
“In the trash can, of course.” She replied simply. “The one in my room.”
The sheriff left and headed towards the bedrooms.
It took a few seconds of silence before the Maddie’s eyes filled with tears. She looked at Mori with the saddest face I’ve ever seen on anyone.
“It was my fault, huh?” She got close to Mori and lowered her voice. “I gave Josephine the medicine and she died. Then I gave daddy the medicine and he died. I hurt them, huh?”
I had to turn away from her face. It was wracked with understanding and guilt that a child that age shouldn’t have. I didn’t know how Mori was going to answer her.
“The medicine was bad.” Mori scooped the girl up in a hug. “You should never give anyone medicine unless you’re a doctor, okay? Can you promise to never do that again?”
Maddie broke into tears as her voice broke while trying to answer him.
“It was an accident, Maddie.” He told her softly. “Just an accident.”
The sheriff came back in the room holding a large white medicine bottle and a very rusted full metal syringe that looked like it came from long before even Miss Jill had been around. I found myself oddly thankful it had no needle attached. He held them up for Mori to see.
Mori nodded his head but kept soothing the sobbing child.
Trouble, even when we do not seek it, finds us.
Mori’s words echoed in my mind. As I looked around at the devastated family in front of us, those who I had so recently called my friends, I prayed that, just once, Mori was wrong.
My lofty dreams of being a famous & brilliant writer were literally smacked out of my head. Now I plan to fill the void with copious amounts of subpar writing!