Starting today, and going on until the story is finished: Hurricane Audrey, a book set after Blue Skies Fall, but before the next book in the series (which is yet to be titled). I’ll be posting one chapter a week for at least ten weeks, depending on how well the story plays out (I have several written so far, but I do not want to stretch the story beyond its expiry!)
The hurricane threatened to be one hell of a show, the kind nobody wanted to have a front row seat to. Despite that I’d used every opportunity to tease my best girl and bride-to-be, Audrey Carmen, about the storm having her name. Hurricanes are ripe for that sort of joke given the wind, water, and general destruction they can cause. I’ll leave all that to the imagination. But because of the proximity of the storm to our town and the potential damage, the two of us sat on the couch, staring at the radio. The nearest television stations already gone off the air.
Despite the rain and wind outside, someone started pounding the door downstairs. For a long time now, ever since Audrey’s house exploded due to an intentional gas leak, she’d lived with me — in the apartment above my office. Since she’d inherited her cousin’s truckstop business, the only people who could possibly want to see us in this weather were my potential clients or a shipping emergency.
I sighed and disentangled myself from Audrey, grabbed the revolver off the small coffee table, and made my way down the stairs and into the small mud-room that separated the different sections of the small building. After unlocking the door and opening it just so, I found myself staring at Detective Lieutenant Joe Elmira, and his boss, Chief Coleman. They were soaked to the bone, the brims of their hats sagging like dying flowers.
“Can I help you gentlemen?” I asked.
“Can we come in?” Coleman asked. I stepped aside and opened the door to allow them in.
“I’m going to need that gun,” Elmira said.
“Come on, Ron,” Elmira said. “Let me have it.”
“All right,” I said. “What’s this about?”
“Is Audrey upstairs?” Coleman asked, the moment Elmira had possession of my gun.
“What’s going on here?” I asked.
“Yes or no, Ron,” Coleman said. His voice wasn’t his friendly voice — he wasn’t here as my friend, neither was Elmira. They were here on business. My mind began to work through possibilities. Were they after me or Audrey? Both of us? Did someone find a link between her and Salt Marsh?
“Yes,” I said. But I stepped between them and the stairs up.
“Is she decent?” Coleman asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Now tell me what’s going on, Coleman.”
“Miss Carmen,” Elmira called, up the stairs. He tried to walk past me, and I blocked him — nothing violent, just using my own body as a way to let him know that wouldn’t fly.
“I’m going to need to see a warrant, Joe,” I said.
Elmira looked at me for a long moment. His eyes went from hard, angry cop eyes to — for just a moment — sad, sympathetic. But then the hard look came back.
“Show him, Lieutenant,” Coleman said.
Joe took a folded stack of paper out of his inside jacket pocket, and I began to scan the pages. It was an arrest warrant for Audrey, signed by the county judge.
“What the hell-”
“What’s going on, Ronnie?” Audrey asked. Her voice was a few steps above us. Before I could turn to her, Elmira pushed me out of the way and started up the stairs. “Miss Carmen, you’re under arrest for the murder of Ellen Henry…”
His words, everything around me, seemed to fade away. I knew the name Ellen Henry: she worked for Audrey at the truckstop. But I knew of no reason for Audrey to commit a murder, especially against a young woman working for her. A young woman who, from everything I knew, worked hard and came in on time. Coleman stood between Elmira and me as Elmira cuffed Audrey and led her out of the building, into the rain.
“This is a mistake,” I said.
“We have an eyeball witness, Ron,” Coleman said. “Girl saw Audrey with her, saw them fighting.”
“You know this doesn’t make any damn sense,” I said.
“Murder rarely does. You know that, Cavanaugh.”
“I want to see the crime scene,” I said. “Photos, evidence, I want to see it. I want to talk to the witness.”
“Ron, you know damn well I can’t do any of that,” Coleman said. He put a card into the palm of my hand. “This guy is the best defense attorney on the Gulf Coast. Give him a call, he’s who I’d want.”
I didn’t even look at the card as Coleman left.
I’d call the lawyer, sure. I’d do everything I could, from a legal standpoint, to get Audrey out of this mess. This mess I knew she didn’t cause. But I’d be damned if I wouldn’t work on the case myself, the same way I would for the best paying client — because Audrey meant the world to me. Someone was out to get me, through her. In my head I’d begun to build a list of potential conspirators.
Governor Jeffrey still hated me for my role in bringing down Salt Marsh and nearly bringing him down. Chris Martin probably blamed me for his rotting in prison. The families of the Salt Marsh men might be up to it. Someone connected to the Vance or Harman clans angry over my role in their scandal. One of the White dames. Maybe even Clayton King, a former gun runner for Salt Marsh. The list of people with my name in the crosshairs stretched on.
Motive was only the first step. Opportunity and means were the next. Then, deniability. Who would be the most harmed if they were caught doing this? They’d more likely kill me or Audrey, rather than start a conspiracy that could eventually come back to them. But it was all speculation without evidence. I marched into my office and began to dress, and by dress I mean arm myself to the teeth. Pistols, a pair of heavy slapjacks, a few knives.
Camera, tape recorder in a big suitcase, set gingerly in the back seat of my car. A rifle and shotgun leaning up at the shotgun position. Before I left, I called the lawyer on the card — one Walton Dorter. He wasn’t at the office — nobody was. He worked out of New Orleans and had, in all likelihood, fled before the storm made landfall.
That put me on my own: that was where I worked best.
I didn’t know much yet, but I did know Audrey had Ellen’s address on file at the truckstop. It wasn’t much but it was a start.
As strange as it was sneaking into a place I technically had the right to be, sneaking into Ellen Henry’s home was truly disturbing. Elmira knew me pretty well, and had a squad car parked out front. But, I guess with the weather, they didn’t spare a man to watch the back. I parked down the road and sneaked into the back door, carefully picking the lock. That skill had come in extremely handy since I had a young vagrant teach it to me during a case several years prior.
Ellen Henry was a young woman, working summers to pay her way through school. She came from the end of the financial spectrum that Audrey and I did — any possible opportunity had to be taken, male or female, to ensure a better future. I worried, sometimes, that the path I chose would doom my children to the same sort of life. Her parents, however, had evacuated before their daughter was murdered, or so the house appeared. Windows boarded up to protect them from damage, at least as much as plywood could. Ellen appeared to be the only family member to stay.
I had to be careful in the hall — the front door remained open, crime scene tape criss-crossing the doorway and a make-shift awning put up by the cops to preserve evidence. It looked as though Ellen had been found in the doorway.
Nothing in the house seemed out of place, aside from that front door. Ellen’s room looked like what I expected of a young woman, still living at home. A few knick-knacks, pictures of her, and her friends, a small record player with built-in speaker.
What motive could anyone have for killing this woman?
The wind and rain outside both picked up. Perhaps instead of looking for clues around the victim, it might be best for me to look at my pool of suspects. But just then the house started to shake a bit and outside it sounded as though a train was rushing by and getting closer. How was that possible? The tracks didn’t come near this neighborhood. The air pressure in the house changed, my ears popped, and all I could hear was the rushing of the train as wind pounded the house.
The one sound loud enough to be heard over the rushing train was creaking, breaking, snapping wood. The ceiling above me shifted, as though a giant attempted to twist off the roof of the house, and I started running down the hall and toward the front door — squad car be damned. Either a train derailed or a tornado hit the town.
Outside the world had gone near black, with an eerie green shade to the sky. The squad car was gone — no, it was on its side down the street, one cop struggling to pull himself out the passenger side window. Street signs, trees, houses — all flattened out. It looked like a bomb went off. Debris hit me in the face, arms, chest as though a woodchipper was pointed right at me. Holding one arm out to protect my face I tried to see where the twister stood in the darkness.
Even in the near black, I could see the whirling rush of dirt and wind cast against the deep green clouds, currently ripping the next house down into bits, hurling brick, shingle, and wood into the air. Everything I thought I knew about myself and tornadoes ceased to be relevant in that moment. It bore down on me, moving in my direction at a snail’s pace.
“Help!” cried one of the cops.
Dodging as much large debris as possible — though still taking a few hard hits to the body — I got to the squad car in a few staggered strides, and pulled myself up onto the passenger side. After helping the first cop out, we both worked together to get his partner, the driver, out. He wouldn’t be driving any time soon. Several bones in his arms were visibly broken.
“Let’s get to my car,” I said, thumbing in the direction the twister hadn’t been. Only, it was more of a scream with everything I had than a shout. The tornado bore down on us, moving slowly, taking its time.
It still took everything we had to get the injured cop and ourselves out of its path. Every step came with the fear of the wind picking up, or throwing a car into us. The cops both piled into the backseat together as I started the car.
The whole way toward the hospital it seemed like the tornado struggled to keep up with my car. If I didn’t know better…
If you like this, and think you’d like to read more, I have collected the first four volumes of the Cigars and Legs series into big e-book: Boots, Dames, and Skies: The Red, White, and Blue Collection (Cigars and Legs Book 5)