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Authors: Patricia Dusenbury

Tags: #Murder: Cozy - PTSD - Historic House Renovator - New Orleans

Patricia Dusenbury - Claire Marshall 01 - A Perfect Victim

BOOK: Patricia Dusenbury - Claire Marshall 01 - A Perfect Victim
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Patricia Dusenbury - Claire Marshall 01 - A Perfect Victim
Number I of
Claire Marshall
Patricia Dusenbury
Uncial Press (2013)
Tags:
Murder: Cozy - PTSD - Historic House Renovator - New Orleans
Murder: Cozy - PTSD - Historic House Renovator - New Orleansttt
Claire Marshall’s world crumbled when her husband died in a fire. She’s trying to build a new life—and a business restoring historic houses. Then one of her clients is found dead in a burned building. The police suspect her of arson or murder, maybe both.
It’s her own fault. Finding the charred ruin of Charlie’s cabin in a remote corner of Louisiana’s bayou country revived horrible memories of her husband's death. She suffered a panic attack. Calling the sheriff hours later wasn't good enough.
No one believes Claire's relationship with the late Charlie Palmer was strictly business. After all, he spent his last days telling the world they were in love and planning to marry. How do you win an argument with a dead man?
Claire's quest to prove her innocence before the police “prove” her guilt becomes an investigation into the victim's life. It takes her back in time, from New Orleans to rural Alabama to the high country of New Mexico, where she comes face to face with the real killer. Forced to fight for her life, she realizes how much she wants to live.
A Perfect Victim

 

By

Patricia Dusenbury

 

 

Uncial Press       Aloha, Oregon
2013
 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and events described herein are
products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any
resemblance to actual events, locations, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely
coincidental.

ISBN 13: 978-1-60174-164-6

A Perfect Victim
Copyright © 2013 by Patricia Dusenbury

Cover design
Copyright © 2013 by Judith B. Glad
Cover Photo © Ashley
Whitworth | Dreamstime.com

All rights reserved. Except for use in review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in
whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means now known or hereafter
invented, is forbidden without the written permission of the publisher.

Warning: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal.
Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the
FBI and is punishable by up to five (5) years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.

Published by Uncial Press,
an imprint of GCT, Inc.

Visit us at http://www.uncialpress.com

 

With gratitude to George for his encouragement
and to Alicia for her constructive
criticism.

CHAPTER 1
Wednesday, October 12, 1993

Daniel Doucet motored away from Ray's Dock, feeling pretty good about himself.
Tomorrow, buyers from New Orleans restaurants would be looking to stock up for the weekend,
and he'd be ready. The burlap bags stacked under the prow would be bulging with oysters, the big
ones that commanded top dollar. He might be a twenty-two-year-old high school dropout, but he
made a good living.

The morning breeze kicked up a light chop that sent brackish spray across the prow deck,
adding substance to the hovering fog. Daniel's Saint Andrew medal bounced against his chest, and
he rubbed it for luck. The gold was silky smooth; the back worn concave by calloused thumbs
belonging to generations of Doucet watermen. Daniel gave thanks for the poor visibility, which
meant he didn't have to keep an eye out for snoops from Wildlife and Fisheries.

By midday, the fog had lifted and his mood had soured. The too heavy shells in his tongs
said his luck hadn't changed, but he checked anyway. A push and a twist of his knife popped a shell
open, revealing a stinking glob of black muck. He threw it back and opened another. More of the
same. Last year, this bed had been healthy. He cursed the dredging and canals that were letting the
Gulf's salt water ever deeper into the marshes.

Daniel loved the bayou country with its wide lakes and black-water swamps, its grass
marshes and sheltering trees. He took oysters with tongs as his grandfather had done. He'd never
use one of those goddamn mechanical harvesters that tear up everything in their path. He'd never
go out in the Gulf on a shrimp boat with nets so big they had to be pulled in with motors operated
by men like his father and older brothers, and the fish you didn't want died before you could throw
them back.

He swept his tongs across the deck, returning the dead shells to the water, and motored to
another spot. Pickings were better but still lousy. Half the shells he pulled up were dead and the live
ones, too puny to bother with. He needed to stop wasting time and head over to Bayou Perdu. He
thought about why he hadn't started there, and his scowl deepened.

Weekend before last he'd had a run-in with a cabin owner. This big shot from New Orleans,
who ran his big boat with its big motors too fast through the marshland, had spotted him taking
oysters from posted water. The asshole shook his fist and hollered that he was going to call Wildlife
and Fisheries. Like it was any of his business. Daniel had gotten out of there fast and not gone back.
Not yet, but he was thinking about it. There were no other cabins up there, and the odds of anyone
being around on a Wednesday afternoon were slim. Finding live oysters was a sure thing. He'd be
more careful today.

He restarted his motor and headed for Bayou Perdu, past the big yellow signs warning that
he was entering a posted area. Shellfish taken from these waters could cause serious illness and
possibly death. Anyone caught harvesting oysters risked a $1000 fine. Big deal. He didn't plan to get
caught, the oysters were probably fine, and he'd never heard of anyone dying from a bad oyster.
Sick yes, dying no. Truth was Daniel didn't care about the rich people and tourists who'd be eating
his oysters. They and people like them were responsible for the slow destruction of the
swamplands.
Reap what you sow, fuckers.

He was about to cross the channel that led to the asshole's dock when he heard the drone
of another motor. He turned his off and listened, but the noise was gone. He poled into a small cut
sheltered by tall grass and waited, every sense on high alert. No boat moved across the lake. Down
the channel, the asshole's big boat floated alongside the dock, tied up and deserted looking. A big
gator swam lazily down the channel, and a few minutes later a school of minnows cut a wider vee
on their way out. A pelican eyed the little fish from his perch atop a piling but didn't bother.

Reassured that whoever he'd heard had moved on, Daniel continued to his destination and
dropped anchor. A hundred years ago, Bayou Perdu was a creek running between tree-shaded
banks. When rising waters transformed the land, the creek became a current running through a
swamp, and the trees died. Their underwater skeletons became home to oysters instead of
birds--and a sweet spot only he knew about.

He grasped his tongs in both hands, raised his arms toward heaven and thrust deep,
pushing down until he felt the steel tines scraping against shell. He let the handles spread apart and
then pulled them together sharply. Open, close, open, close. He wasn't a big man, five-nine and a
hundred fifty pounds, but he was strong. The muscles in his arms and shoulders tensed and
released in tempo as he ripped the oysters from their purchase on the old wood. When he felt their
weight fall into the basket, he pulled the handles together and, sliding one hand then the other
down their length, hoisted his catch out of the water. He released the shells onto the prow deck and
sorted them by size. His movements were quick but careful.
An oyster shell will slice a man's hand
so neatly he'll see the blood before he feels the pain.

Daniel popped a big one open and smiled at the oyster, fat and juicy on the shimmering
shell. He tossed it back into the water, picked up his tongs and eased into the rhythm. Soon, he was
sweating the healthy sweat of hard work, his scent blending into that of the swampland, a man at
peace.

He was bringing up a full basket when something exploded behind him. Before he could
turn around, there was a second, bigger, explosion. A blast of hot air sent him tumbling forward.
What the hell?
He dove for the bottom of his boat and peered over the gunnels.

The asshole's cabin was on fire. Big time. Raging yellow flames poked through the roof, and
more shot out the windows. The cabin sat a good hundred feet away, but the heat was so intense it
prickled his bare skin. An engine turned over and firelight glinted off a windshield next to the cabin.
Then blinding smoke closed in. He heard but couldn't see the vehicle speed up the dirt track to the
top of the old levee. It must have been parked behind the cabin. That was the motor he'd heard,
them driving in. Why didn't he see it?
Shit.

He retrieved his tongs, started the motor, and got the hell out of there.

* * * *

Hungry flames devoured the wooden building. They ate away the walls and gnawed holes
in the roof. A chunk of rafter crashed down, sending new licks of orange and yellow into the sky and
fresh waves of heat rolling across the water.

Inside the cabin, burning shingles rode currents of scorched air, spiraling downward like
spent roman candles and igniting everything they touched. Sparks landed on the linoleum floor and
the old Formica table in the kitchen, on the overstuffed sofa in the front room, and on the man who
lay on the sofa. Embers burned holes through his clothing and into his flesh. They bored tunnels in
the upholstery, and the sofa erupted into a blazing funeral pyre.

Like a foolish parasite, the fire consumed its host and then starved to death. Gray-layered
clouds absorbed the smoke, and the breeze carried it away. In the swamp, insects resumed their
droning chorus and animals their eternal hunt. Unimpressed by man's handiwork, the bayou
continued its slow passage to the Gulf.

CHAPTER 2
Thursday, October 13, 1993

Claire Marshall parked her rental car in a shady spot. She shook a pill from the vial she kept
in her purse, turned the radio to a low volume and waited for the drug to kick in. Once it had, she
walked up the hill. Coming to the cemetery had taken courage--no sane person tries to have a panic
attack--but she was determined to learn what triggered hers. She couldn't take pills forever.

Thomas Wright Marshall beloved husband of Claire
. The inscription said he'd been
hers, yet when she closed her eyes she couldn't picture his face. She couldn't remember the warmth
of his body, his smell or his taste. Tom was lost to her more thoroughly than she would have
thought possible. She traced the curving letters with her fingertip and felt only emptiness. The
Xanax hadn't been necessary.

The ground had subsided over his grave, leaving a coffin-shaped depression that reinforced
the futility of her visit. She slipped the pebble from her pocket, a flattened translucent sphere she'd
found on the beach--children call them angels' tears--and left it beside his headstone.

Fallen leaves crackled underfoot as she walked back to the parking lot. Faint honking
drifted down from geese flying south in an impossibly blue sky. A murmuring wedge of dark-clad
mourners approached, and she stepped aside so they could pass without breaking formation.
Fifteen months ago, she'd been the center of a similar group.

"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," she murmured, despite knowing the new widow couldn't hear and
that it wouldn't help if she did.

On the way back to her mother's house, she detoured past Mecosta County High School.
The old brick building with its white columns and tall multi-paned windows looked just as it had
twenty years ago when she and Tom sat next to each other in ninth-grade homeroom. Inside, the air
would still smell of chalk and teenagers, wool sweaters and canvas sneakers--and dreams. Even
then, Tom had known he wanted to be a pediatrician. Saving the world one child at a time, he'd
joked, but he'd meant it, and she had vowed to help him.

The same shops lined Main Street. Too far from Grand Rapids to be a suburb and too far off
Lake Michigan to be a resort, Centreville seemed to exist outside time. Several of their high school
friends had moved back to raise families, but she and Tom had wanted a larger world. After Ann
Arbor, they'd moved to Baltimore for his med school at Johns Hopkins and then New Orleans for his
residency at Tulane. He would have begun practice in New York City. They'd laughed about starting
their family in Manhattan of all places.

She'd buried him in Mecosta County where his family, and hers, still lived. He'd died before
they could put down roots of their own.

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