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Amanda Stevens

The Whispering Room

Dear Reader,

You’ve seen the news reports from post-Katrina New Orleans. A police force in shambles. The breakdown of law and order. Citizens cowering in their homes after dark. The old and infirm preyed upon by roving bands of thugs.

For Detective Evangeline Theroux, it’s just another day in the Big Easy...until death becomes personal.

A body covered in snake bites is found in an abandoned house in the Lower Ninth Ward. A connection to a notorious child killer is eventually uncovered. Throw in a Pandora’s box of family secrets, murder and insanity, and you’ve only scratched the surface of Evangeline’s story.

Known as the Ghoul Girl because of the cold and emotionless way she approaches even the most gruesome crime scenes, Evangeline has worked hard to be accepted as an equal by her male colleagues. She’s aloof, analytical and tenacious—

traits that are sometimes at war with her Southern upbringing.

On a personal level, she’s a grieving widow and a single mother, the sister of an ex-con and the daughter of a couple whose forty-year marriage is disintegrating. But more important, Evangeline Theroux is a fighter. A survivor.

A woman who will not go quietly into the night.

And for me, the writer, she is a character who refuses to say goodbye.

Welcome to her world.

Amanda Stevens

For Pat and Lefty

And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

Mark 16:17, 18

One

July, 1976

The swamp bustled with the sounds of a summer morning. Mosquitoes buzzed in the shade, mocking-birds trilled from the pecan trees and in the distance, an outboard motor chugged toward the oyster beds and the shallow fishing waters of the Atchafalaya Basin.

But the house was quiet.

Too quiet, Nella Prather thought uneasily as she walked up the gravel driveway.

Something black and sinewy slithered through the grass, and she gave it a wide berth as she headed across the yard to the porch.

Slowly she climbed the steps and knocked on the screen door. When she didn’t get an answer, she cupped her hands to the sides of her face and peered inside.

The interior was so dark she couldn’t see anything beyond the shadowy front hallway, nor could she hear so much as a whisper from any of the children.

That’s strange.

Her cousin’s five offspring ranged in ages from eight years all the way down to thirteen months.

With their blond curls and wide blue eyes, they looked like perfect little angels.

But even angelic children made some racket.

Despite the silence, the family had to be home. It was still early, and Mary Alice’s old station wagon was parked under the carport. They lived too far out in the country to walk to town or even to the nearest neighbor.

Besides, Mary Alice rarely left the house. She’d converted the back sunporch to a classroom so that she could homeschool the two older children, Ruth and Rebecca. If they were out there now, she mightn’t have heard the knock, Nella decided.

But she hesitated to call out in case the boys—

Joseph, Matthew and baby Jacob—were still sleeping.

Turning, she glanced out over the bayou, where the lily pads were bursting with purple blooms. The air smelled of mimosa, moss and the wet green lichen that grew on the bark of the cypress trees lining the banks.

It was beautiful out here. So calm and peaceful.

And yet apprehension fluttered in Nella’s heart.

Where are the children?

Except for an overturned tricycle in the dense shade of a cedar tree and a tiny, forgotten sneaker at the top of the steps, the place looked immaculate.

Baskets of ferns hung from the porch rafters, and the lawn was painted with patches of red and yellow four- o’clocks and pink peonies.

Nella couldn’t imagine how her cousin managed to keep everything so orderly, especially now that her husband had left her. According to Nella’s mother, he’d just up and walked out months ago, leaving Mary Alice to fend for herself and the children.

Thank goodness she had a small inheritance from her father to fall back on, but that wouldn’t last long, what with feeding and clothing five little ones. Nella worried how her cousin would cope once the money ran out.

I should have come sooner. She’s my own flesh and blood, and I couldn’t be bothered to drive out here and lend a helping hand.

But she and Mary Alice hadn’t been close in years, not since the summer Nella had come home from her first year at LSU to find her cousin engaged to Charles Lemay, a dark, taciturn man fifteen years her senior.

Charles was extremely handsome, Nella would give him that. And she supposed there were some who might even consider him charming. But the way he’d flattered and cajoled and later browbeat a besotted Mary Alice had disgusted Nella.

And then the babies had started coming, some barely a year apart. Throughout her pregnancies, even the difficult ones, Mary Alice had worked like a dog caring for the house and children and making sure her husband was properly pampered.

Charles had put the family on a rigid schedule—dinner on the table by six and bedtime at eight, except on nights when they all attended church service together.

His church, naturally.

Mary Alice had been raised Catholic, but Charles would never allow his wife and children to drive all the way into Houma to attend mass at St. Ann’s, where she’d received First Communion. Instead, they’d joined a rural, nondenominational congregation that met in an abandoned gas station near the highway.

Nella had never gone to one of the prayer meet-ings, but she’d heard talk of snake-handling. Rumor had it one of the members had nearly died the year before when he’d been bitten by a pit viper.

A chill wind swept over Nella, an early breeze from the storm clouds gathering out in the gulf. Or so she thought.

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