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Authors: Barbara Colley

Wiped Out

BOOK: Wiped Out
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On weekdays, Charlotte usually only skimmed the headlines of the newspaper before going to work. On Wednesday morning, she had awakened earlier than usual, though, early enough, she decided, for a leisurely cup of coffee and to actually read the newspaper.

In the kitchen, she switched on the coffeepot. On her way through the living room, she stopped long enough to uncover her little parakeet's cage and then she retrieved the
from the front porch steps.

Once back in the kitchen, she poured herself a cup of coffee. To make sure she allowed enough time to eat breakfast, dress and get to work, she set the kitchen timer for forty-five minutes. Then she settled at the kitchen table with the newspaper and her coffee.

Charlotte read through a good bit of the paper and then came upon the obituary section. Just as she reached to turn the page, one of the pictures caught her eye.

Charlotte gasped and a deep hollow feeling settled in the pit of her stomach as she stared at the picture. “No way,” she whispered. It just wasn't possible.

Mimi Adams was dead…

Books by Barbara Colley






Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation

A Charlotte LaRue Mystery

Barbara Colley


For April, Charles, and Cristi—
my children.


I would like to express my sincere appreciation to all who so generously gave me advice and information while I was writing this book: the New Orleans coroner's office; René Schmit, county agent with the LSU Agricultural Center; my wonderful friends and fellow writers, Rexanne Becnel, Jessica Ferguson, Marie Goodwin, and Karen Young.

I also want to thank Evan Marshall and John Scognamiglio. Their support and advice are invaluable.

Chapter 1

atch out for that woman. She's not someone you want to cross.

Like a nagging toothache that just wouldn't go away, Bitsy Duhe's dire statement about Mary Lou Adams came to mind yet again as Charlotte LaRue drove down Prytania.

Monday morning traffic had slowed to a crawl, and as Charlotte inched along in her van, she found herself growing more frustrated with each passing minute. The traffic jam was bad enough, but what Bitsy had said had haunted her all week…and worried her.

The last thing that Charlotte had wanted was to listen to one client gossiping about another client, especially a brand-new client whom she'd never met except through a phone conversation. She'd always preferred to form her own opinions about the people she cleaned for. And truth be told, Bitsy, bless her old heart, was one of the biggest gossips in New Orleans. Any little tidbit of information was fair grist for Bitsy's gossip mill.

As usual, though, Bitsy had ignored Charlotte's attempts to change the subject, and she'd filled her ears with information about Mary Lou and Gordon Adams.

According to Bitsy, Mary Lou was a social butterfly, but a butterfly with the sting of a wasp. As for Gordon Adams, his one obsession in life was becoming even wealthier than he already was. He had not only expanded his car dealerships to include South Louisiana but had ventured into Mississippi as well.

Behind Charlotte a car horn blared and she jumped. “Okay, okay, for Pete's sake!” She glowered in the rearview mirror at the driver behind her, then eased her van forward. Both of them were going nowhere fast, so she didn't see what the big deal was about lagging a few feet behind the car in front of her.

Still irritated at being honked at, she ventured a quick glance at the dashboard clock. Five minutes. She drummed her fingers impatiently against the steering wheel. She still had five minutes to get to the Adams's house before nine.

The line of vehicles in front of her stopped again, and with a groan of frustration, Charlotte craned her neck in an attempt to see past the SUV ahead of her. Half a block down was a side street. If she could just reach the side street, she could get around the traffic jam altogether.

A few minutes later, Charlotte sighed with relief when she finally parked behind an old battered truck alongside the curb in front of the Adams's house. From the looks of the contents in the bed of the truck, she figured that today was most probably the day for the gardener as well as the maid.

Charlotte glanced at the dashboard clock again. “You're late,” she grumbled to herself.
Just five minutes. So what?
her inner voice chided.
It's highly doubtful that Mary Lou Adams is sitting in front of a clock and counting the minutes, Charlotte.

Feeling a bit foolish for worrying so much about the time, Charlotte quickly unloaded her supply carrier and vacuum cleaner from the back of the van.

A black cast-iron fence surrounded the house, and as she let herself in through the ornate gate, she paused a moment to admire the beautifully preserved home and the well-manicured grounds.

The huge house was magnificent, probably built in the late 1800s, she decided. Like many of the old homes in the New Orleans Garden District, she could tell that it had been altered over the years, the end result that the style was a combination of Greek Revival and Victorian. But the landscaping was what really caught her eye. She'd worked in the Garden District for more years than she cared to count, and she'd be willing to rate the grounds of the Adams's home as one of the most fascinating that she'd seen. It was filled with exotic plants. A couple of the plants she recognized—Tibou-china, the Sago Palm—but there were many more that she didn't.

Charlotte's long experience working as a maid exclusively in the Garden District had made her somewhat of an expert on architecture and furnishings, and she was well aware that only someone very wealthy could afford the upkeep on such an extravagant old home.

Mary Lou and Gordon Adams were indeed wealthy. Not only did Gordon Claiborne Adams III own a conglomerate of car dealerships that stretched over the entire state of Louisiana, but according to Bitsy, he came from old New Orleans money as well.

Charlotte climbed the steps to the lower gallery and approached the double entry doors. Each oak door contained beveled leaded glass, and above the doors was a transom made of the same type of glass as well. A large brass door knocker was located to the side of the doors and was shaped in an oblong circle; within the circle was an ornate

for Adams,” Charlotte murmured as she lifted the door knocker and banged it a couple of times. She waited several minutes. When no one came to the door, she banged the door knocker again.

After a moment, Charlotte frowned and tapped her foot impatiently.
The gardener.
Maybe the Adams woman was outside in the backyard with the gardener. Still she hesitated. Should she take the supply carrier and vacuum cleaner with her or not? Not, she decided. Neither was that heavy, but both together were a bit unwieldy, and besides, there was no use lugging them all over creation if she didn't have to. She set the supplies and vacuum cleaner down on the porch, then went in search of her new employer.

As Charlotte neared the back of the house, she heard voices. One was the low, gravely rumble of a man's voice. Probably the gardener, she figured. Though Charlotte had never met her newest client face-to-face, she had talked to her for just a few minutes over the phone, and there was no mistaking the other voice, with its imperious, higher-pitched tone, as belonging to Mary Lou Adams.

When Charlotte rounded the back corner of the house, she glanced around in awe. The landscape of the backyard was just as amazing as the front and side yard had been. The entire property in the back was encased in a wall of well-manicured Photina that served as a living privacy fence. At the far back corner of the property was what looked like a small greenhouse. Beneath a portico attached to the main house was a large brick terrace, which Charlotte suspected was original to the house. Flanking the terrace were even more exotic plants, and in the center of the terrace was a circular brick planter containing ferns and a Venetian urn.

Charlotte stared at the small urn and shuddered. Though not nearly as large as the urn that one of her former clients Patsy Dufore had owned, Charlotte doubted that she would ever be able to look at another urn again without remembering the harrowing experience she'd had when she'd worked for Patsy.

With another shudder, Charlotte forced herself to turn her attention to the middle-aged, scruffy-looking man and the tall, slim woman near the edge of the property.

Her first impression of Mary Lou Adams was that the woman's appearance fit her voice. Her dark brown hair was long and brushed straight back in a seemingly effortless style that revealed a high forehead; finely arched brows; a straight, narrow nose; and full cupid lips. She was a tall woman, probably in her mid-forties, and though she appeared to be dressed casually, even from a short distance Charlotte suspected that the aqua-colored blouse and matching slacks she wore were made of silk because of the drape of the fabric.

Charlotte herself was only five feet three with short, gray-streaked, honey brown hair, which she liked to think was cut stylishly, and she still wore a size nine. But compared to Mary Lou Adams, she felt downright frumpy.

It's the age difference,
she consoled herself. She figured that she was probably almost twenty years older than the other woman. And, of course, there was no way her plain blue polyester uniform could compare to Mary Lou's silk outfit.

Silk, just the thing to wear while mucking around in the heat and dirt.
The moment that the sarcastic thought popped into her head, she felt the chiding prick of her conscience.
Shame on you. Judge not lest ye be judged.
Promising herself that she would try to be less critical in the future, she walked briskly toward where the couple was standing.

“This is the one.” Mary Lou pointed out a small tree that was all but naked of leaves. What few leaves that were left on the scrawny tree were brown and shriveled. “I want it dug up, roots and all.” She gave Charlotte a cursory glance, and continued her instructions to the gardener. “After you get it all up, I need you to prepare this area for a small flower bed. About three feet by ten feet should be plenty of room.” Without waiting for a question or comment from the gardener, she turned her back on him and faced Charlotte. “You must be Charlotte.” She thrust out a hand with perfectly manicured and polished fingernails.

Charlotte nodded and shook her hand. “And you must be Mary Lou,” she said with a smile, noting that although the handshake was brief, the other woman's grasp was strong and firm.

“Yes, I am. But for goodness sake, call me Mimi. It's a nickname I've had so long that I probably won't answer to anything else.”

Again, Charlotte nodded. “I'll try to remember that.” Charlotte motioned toward the small tree. “Termites or the heat?”

“Neither,” Mimi retorted. “The poor thing was murdered, outright killed on purpose by Sally Lawson, that awful woman who lives next door. It's the second one she's killed in less than a year.”

Charlotte wasn't quite sure how to respond. All she could think of to say was, “But why?”

“Humph! Why indeed. Because Sally is a selfish, vindictive woman who loves nothing more than to make my life miserable. And all because of her stupid pool.”

“Her pool?”

“She has a swimming pool just on the other side of the hedge. Pathetic creature that she is, evidently her pool parties are her only form of social entertainment.” She glared toward her neighbor's house. “Her
pool parties,” she added in a loud voice as if hoping that Sally Lawson were listening. She turned back to Charlotte. “She's already cut down a couple of trees in her own yard—beautiful old live oaks that had to be over a hundred years old. And all because they shaded her pool. So now she's poisoning my tree.”

Mimi suddenly laughed. It was a wicked sound that matched the sly expression on her face. “But I've found a delicious way to get even.” She motioned for Charlotte to follow her and led Charlotte to the small greenhouse. Near the opening of the greenhouse were several large containers grouped together. Inside the containers were what appeared to be flowers, but Charlotte personally thought they looked more like weeds. From a distance, the plants, with their pale green stems, large leaves, and purple, funnel-shaped blooms, were rather pretty, but by the time Charlotte and Mimi got within a few feet of the plants the putrid, rotten-egg smell was overpowering. Charlotte wrinkled her nose and tried not to breathe too deeply.

“Don't they smell just awful?” Mimi said with a grin, her hands on her hips. Charlotte nodded, and Mimi laughed and bent down to gently caress one of the stinky blooms. “These are my little revenge.”

She stood upright, pulled a small package of hand wipes from her pocket, and, using one of the wipes, scrubbed at her hands. Then, to Charlotte's horror, Mimi dried her hands by rubbing them on the legs of her silk pants. “Actually, they're classified as weeds,” Mimi continued.

If it looks like a weed, then it must be a weed, Charlotte thought.

“But you'd never know from the looks of them,” Mimi said.

Charlotte had to bite her tongue to keep from voicing her thoughts on that one.

“A friend of mine came up with the idea,” Mimi told her. “Instead of planting another tree for Sally to kill, I'm going to plant these. With enough of them growing along that fence, I'm banking that the awful smell will drive her and her noisy friends crazy or, at the very least, ruin her parties.”

“But won't the smell bother you as well?”

Mimi shrugged. “Just a small price to pay. Besides, we don't entertain back here hardly at all. And I can always get rid of them eventually.”

Charlotte found herself at a loss for words. The capacity for one human being to hurt another never ceased to amaze her, nor the lengths someone would go to. For most of her life, she had always tried her best to live by the Golden Rule of “repay no one evil for evil” instead of the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” philosophy. Finding herself really uncomfortable with the whole conversation, she decided that about now would be a good time for a change of subject.

Charlotte cleared her throat. “Well, I guess I'd better go get busy and leave you to your gardening before it gets too hot. I left my cleaning supplies on the front porch, though, so if you'll unlock the door, I'll get to work.”

Mimi gave her a curious look, and then, with a whatever shrug, she pointed toward the back door beneath the portico. “You can go in that way. That door isn't locked, and there's a key in the dead bolt on the inside of the front door.”

With a nod and eager to get away from the awful smell of the flowers, Charlotte forced a quick smile, did an about-face, and gladly headed for the portico.

As Charlotte approached the terrace, the stench of the flowers still lingered in her nostrils, and unbidden, Bitsy Duhe's warning about Mary Lou Adams came to mind.
Watch out for that woman. She's not someone you want to cross.

Charlotte reached inside her apron pocket and pulled out a tissue. She could hardly wait to get inside and blow her nose, and the moment she closed the door behind her, she did so. It helped, but a bit of the stench still lingered. She wadded the tissue and shoved it back inside her pocket. As far as Charlotte was concerned, Mimi's little feud was just plain ridiculous. Regardless of what Sally Lawson had or had not done to the silly tree, Charlotte didn't think it justified what Mimi was doing. Besides, there were always two sides to an argument, two sides to every story, weren't there?

BOOK: Wiped Out
3.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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