I look at my watch. It’s been ten minutes since Jeff walked through Hillary Boudreaux’s doorway and I called Belinda.
“Yes, yes I’m sure; everything is just fine; don’t you worry about me,” I say. An interminable static breaks into the line. “Belinda?”
“I can hear you.”
“Hey Gilles, Mister Barker.” I look up to see Jeff at the Boudreaux’s front door motioning for me to come.
“Got to go now,” I say. “I’ll call you tonight.”
“No, please don’t. It only upsets me,” Belinda says. “I don’t want to hear from you until you’re safe and packed for California.”
“You mean that?”
“Yes, I mean it. You call me when this thing is over.”
The phone connection is rapidly deteriorating. Belinda says something about the phone’s battery charge and that she’s going to hang up now and, during short breaks in the static, I think I hear her tell me to take good care of myself and I do hear her say “Love you, Babe.”
And I come back with my standard reply. “I love you too,” I say. I turn the phone off and shove it into the Chevy’s glove box.
I get out of the car and stretch for a moment standing on the rough cobblestone drive. I haven’t been on my feet since we left Dallas. The big round driveway stones feel like a masseuse’s deep massage through my sneaker’s soles.
As I climb the steps, Jeff, a big confidential sort of grin on his face, walks out to meet me at the edge of the veranda.
“You are not going to believe this,” he whispers.
I’m not surprised to hear that since he has said it so many times before.
He leads me into the foyer and closes the door. The windows are shuttered, the drapes pulled closed. The only light is from a candelabra chandelier six feet across hanging high above a round mahogany table with a pedestal that curves out into four big bear-claw feet. The chandelier’s flickering electric bulbs dimly light an open stairway that curves up the walls and disappears into the darkness of the second story balcony.
There is little heat; the foyer is still and damp and dark and seems almost as cool as the sun-lit mid winter chill outside. Our steps echo against the white plaster walls as we walk across the foyer’s marble floors and past two closed sets of towering double oak doors. A third double door at the end of the hall stands open, the warm glow of a fireplace flame shimmering out across the hall’s white marble parquet.
As we enter, the first thing I see is the stone faced fireplace on the opposite side of the room. A foot high granite hearth juts two feet out from the wall. There are matching love seats on either side. On a large, round coffee table between the love seats sits a bouquet of two dozen white and yellow lilies in a round crystal urn with beautifully carved swans sparkling in the fire’s light.
A pudgy boy, ten or twelve years old, with chubby red cheeks and a pug nose sits facing the fireplace wedged into a polished red metal Ford pickup truck, its front bumper not four feet from the fire. The truck, with pedals like those on a tricycle, is one of those toys made for children much smaller than him.
The boy wears a Davie Crocket coon skin cap with its tail dangling down over his right ear. He doesn’t acknowledge our presence. He has a stack of New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper pages squashed into tight spheres the size of snowballs piled next to him. He throws the balls into the fire one by one; sparks fly out onto the hardwood floor and a burst of flame shoots up the chimney as each paper ball thwacks against the fire’s logs.
And there’s an overstuffed sofa with wide rolled arms upholstered in a rich gold and alizarin abstract tapestry facing the fire. Silhouetted against the flames, an elderly woman with thinning silver-ash hair sits on the sofa’s center cushion gazing into the fire through thin wire-rimmed glasses. She removes her glasses, and, without turning away from the flames, motions toward Jeff and me.
“Come sit,” she says. She has eyes in the back of her head.
“Mrs. Boudreaux,” Jeff begins, “this is my friend --.” She interrupts Jeff in mid sentence.
“Yes, I know of Mister Barker” she says as she turns to face me. “It’s a pleasure to meet you Mister Barker. I’m Hillary; Hillary Boudreaux.” She shakes my hand. Her flesh has the feel of fine silk common among those knocking on the reaper’s door.
What’s going on here? Another total stranger knows my name. Maybe Lightfoot had told her.
“Gilles; please call me Gilles,” I say. Nice to meet you Mrs. Boudreau.”
“Oh yes; yes, of course – Gilles. Thank you Gilles.”
Jeff and I sit on the loveseats, him to Mrs. Boudreaux’s left and me to her right. The girl who had met Jeff at the entry door brings a silver platter filled with servings of all sorts of finger foods; cheeses and crackers, thinly sliced meats with black olives, pickle slices and dips, a variety of cookies and small carafes of juice and coffee. She places the platter on the coffee table, steps back two paces, and stands holding her hands folded together in front of her.
Thank you, Jana. That will be all for now.” I turn toward Jana to thank her but she has already disappeared.
The boy pushes hard on the toy truck’s pedals and the back wheels spin rubber tracks onto the glossy hardwood floor. The truck lurches forward, smashing into the granite ledge of the hearth with a thud. Amber sparks powder the wooden floor as the boy throws another ball of paper into the fire.
“That’s John John, Johnny Ray Junior,” Hillary says matter-of-factly, “Johnny Ray’s boy. You remember Johnny Ray don’t you Jeff?”
The threat of turning him into alligator bait if they ever crossed paths again has kept Johnny Ray ever fresh in Lightfoot’s mind.
“Yes, ma’am, I sure do remember,” Jeff says, “how’s old Johnny Ray doing these days anyway?”
Hillary Boudreaux sits upright, her boney shoulders square. She’s wearing a long black skirt and white polished silk blouse that hangs loosely over her fragile frame. A dark gray cloth shawl is draped across her shoulders. Her hands rest folded one on top the other against her lap; her legs crossed at the ankles, her feet bare, clear polish on her neatly pedicured nails sparkling in the fire’s light. Her ingenuous facial expression never changes as she tells us what cards fate had dealt to her miscreant son, Johnny Ray Boudreaux.
Johnny had been executed a little more than three years ago Hillary says. Johnny’s long suffering wife, Emma, shot him in the back of the head with a ten gauge shot gun while he was in the process of sleeping off a nasty wine and whiskey induced hangover; it seems Johnny Ray had beaten Emma silly for the umpteenth too many times. He had fractured her jaw and put out his cigarette on the back of her hand.
Before he passed out, Johnny Ray had threatened to stand her on her grandmother’s hand embroidered antique footstool so he could hang her from the big old oak tree that stood in their back yard if she was still in the house when he woke up. As soon as he got her strung up and before he kicked the footstool out from under her feet, he was going to rip her belly open and pull her intestines out to dangle in the dust. And, just to make matters worse for her, he was going to cut off her nipples one at a time and stick them in her mouth before he wound her mouth shut with duct tape and smashed her nose flat against her face with his Louisville Slugger. Johnny Ray had stepped over the line.
Johnny Ray had deserved what he got and more, Hillary says. “If I had been in Emma’s shoes, I think I would have cut off his balls and given him those to chew on for a while before filling his head full of buckshot.”
Hillary says old Judge Parker gave poor Emma twenty years in the prison over to Shreveport for blowing her son’s head off his shoulders.
“And she didn’t deserve none of it. That Judge Parker’s as senile as a bed bug; must be eighty five or ninety years old and wasn’t too damned sharp when he was a young man I’ve been told. Cousin Rita dated Parker back when they were in high school; told me he was dumb as stone, but hung like Mister Ed and hard as this floor till the cows come home.”
Hillary grabs the cane leaning against her leg and raps its tip against the hard-wood floor twice. A cackle rattles up from her chest as she has a vision of old Judge Parker standing in front of the fireplace with a giant circumcised boner popping out from between the buttons on his neatly pleated black robe. She knows the Judge’s penis had been clipped because Cousin Rita told her so some fifty years ago.
“That’s something a person doesn’t forget, if you know what I mean,” Hillary says, “especially with him being a judge and all.”
She begins to cough uncontrollably. She takes a swig from her glass of Southern Comfort and looks back toward the fire. The judge has disappeared.
“Let’s see now – where was I?
“Cows come home,” I say
“Oh yeah, that’s right. Well, anyway you look at it though, Parker had no business sending that girl to jail for doing what just had to be done and I told him so. I swear; I sure would have liked to slap some sense into his bald head and would have too if the bailiff hadn’t cuffed me and hauled me out of there. It gets me riled every time I think about it and that’s about three or four times a week.”
I follow Hillary’s eyes until they come to rest on an eight by ten photo in a gilded frame sitting on the center of the fireplace mantel. It’s a picture of a young couple and a little boy propped up on his sociopath father’s lap.
I immediately recognize the boy as the snotty nosed little Johnny Ray Junior before he had become a household terrorist which is in itself only a warning of bad things to come. And Emma stands close behind the seated Johnny Ray number one in the picture, bent down, her face close to his and her hands resting on his shoulders. There are big smiles all around that somehow fail to hide the air of hostility between this young couple that would soon lead to Johnny Ray’s demise.
How strange it seems to see this picture of Hillary Boudreaux’s first son and his killer and their son, his brain’s genes scrambled with mutations of madness no fault of his own, so prominently displayed above the fire, a memento and constant reminder of that slice of time in the space of things. But, then again, I have yet to witness anything that doesn’t seem peculiar about Hillary Boudreaux; whatever her reasons might be for freezing the moment on her sitting room mantel would be of no surprise to me.
“He got what he had coming, that’s for sure. Johnny was a nasty bully when he was little Johnny Ray’s age and it was straight down hill from there. I would have shot him myself if I could have brought myself to do it. If any man ever needed to be dead and gone, he was up toward the top of the list there toward the end; especially after the booze got a hold on him. His daddy was a better man than him and that’s not saying much for either one of them.”
Hillary raises her hand and points toward the silver serving tray.
Johnny Ray Junior interrupts Hillary’s chain of thought as he smashes his toy truck’s bumper into the fireplace hearth again. Spinning the pedals like a child possessed, his coon skin cap’s tail flying out behind him, he races the truck out the door and down the foyer. Maybe he had heard enough about dear old dad. The echoes recede with each thud as Junior repeatedly crashes his truck against the foyer’s walls until finally there is a dark silence once again except for the crackling of the fire.
“Try one of those ice box cookies, boys,” Hillary Boudreaux says, “Jana and I made those fresh from scratch just this morning.”
Jeff and I pick up cookies as if Hillary Boudreaux had issued an executive order. She watches silently, sipping from a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice spiked with whiskey, as we take our first bites.
“Pretty good, aren’t they,” she says.
“Delicious,” I say.
Jeff nods in agreement and reaches for another.
“When Waynette was a little girl, she loved to help me make ice box cookies and roll home-made egg noodles. We would spend all day rolling and powdering dough while the baking cookies filled the kitchen with that wonderful sweet smell and the aroma would soon fill the house and then drift out across the fields and the boys would come running across the lawn and up the kitchen steps to fill their pockets with fresh baked ice box cookies. And Waynette cut all the kneaded and rolled egg noodle dough into wide strips and dropped them one by one into boiling water; that was her favorite part, the dropping. Now those were some good noodles, son.”
“And these cookies aren’t too bad either, Mrs. Boudreaux,” Jeff says. He reaches for his third.
“Yes. Well now, Jeff, I’m sure you didn’t drive all the way down to Thibodaux Louisiana just to shoot the breeze with this old woman and spend a day sampling my ice box cookies. I can only assume you’re here about Waynette.”
“People change, Jeff. It’s been five years now since we last saw you down here. When you left, I swear, I sure thought that was the last I’d see of you; so did Waynette. Wasn’t any excuse for what Johnny Ray did to you and to his own sister though. Johnny knew how crazy Waynette was about you but he just couldn’t bring himself to accept his sister sleeping with an Indian.”
I look at Jeff. He shrugs his shoulders and takes another bite from his cookie. Apparently no offense was taken.
“He’d rather she married a white serial killer sitting on death row than a red skin who could claim a million dollars in the bank and a mansion on a hill, which of course you didn’t have either one of.” Hillary takes a sip from her glass of fresh squeezed juice and whiskey and gazes into the fire as if her thoughts have wandered to there. “As far as Johnny Ray was concerned, you could just as well have been black or slant-eyed sporting a beanie and a skinny little braided pony tail.”
Now Jeff appears to be getting a little agitated.
Hillary Boudreaux pulls another cane, shiny and black, from under the sofa and draws our attention to its delicately carved ivory swan’s head handle.
“I love swans, don’t you?”
We nod. Yes we do. What’s not to like?
“This one was hand carved for me by Jana’s Uncle from an elephant’s tusk down in Africa. Some folks don’t like that much, but hell, the way I look at it, the elephant was already dead, you know what I mean? I didn’t kill the damn thing so you get what I’m saying?”
Yes we do.
Hillary pushes herself up with the cane and walks to the fire. She takes a metal fire poker from its rack and prods the amber and ash logs until they glow bright and flames creep up toward the chimney’s flue. The room is silent once again except for the crackling of the fire as Mrs. Boudreaux walks back across the room and gently lowers herself onto the sofa.
“Must have been two years after Johnny Ray ran you off before Waynette and I found out what he had done; that he had set the whole thing up. Probably wouldn’t have ever known if the liquor hadn’t finally loosened his tongue. It was at Waynette’s twenty sixth birthday party, just a month before Emma shot Johnny Ray. Keeping that fine secret to himself must have been driving him crazier than he already was; that’s just the sort of thing Johnny Ray would have been itching to brag about. And how those half wits who helped him trick Waynette into catching you out porking that little whore on the night before your wedding kept their mouths shut is beyond me.”
“Of course it wasn’t right for you to be out getting laid the night before your wedding, but it wasn’t through any fault of your own as far as I can see. Anybody with any common sense would know a man isn’t capable of resisting any sort of temp-tation – Adam and Eve – Jesus, all you have to do is check out the bible to see how long you boys have been out of control. Excuse my language, Mister Barker.”
“Oh, no problem; I’ve heard worse.”
“I’m sure you have.” Mrs. Boudreaux scoots to the sofa’s end cushion and reaches for a half full bottle of whiskey sitting on a sofa-side table. Her hand firmly around its neck, she holds the bottle out in front of her. She points at the label. “You know, my great grandmother almost married the man who concocted this stuff. Heron was his name, Marty Heron if I remember right. Yeah that was it. He worked his way down the Mississippi all the way from Saint Louis to New Orleans back in eighteen seventy something and got himself a job tending bar over there in the French Quarter on Saint Peter Street, I think it was. I sometimes remember the name of the place, but seem to have lost it for now.”
Hillary carefully pours a shot of the whiskey over the remaining ice and orange juice in her glass and gently pushes the liquid and ice up and down twice with her spoon. She takes a sip and smacks her lips with pleasure. “You know, you must never stir this whiskey around in the glass and never ever shake it unless you want to ruin a good thing. Saps the flavor right out of it, but you boys probably knew that already.”
Jeff and I shake our heads. No, we didn’t know.
“It’s true for sure. You see, back then, back in the day of Marty Heron and my great grandmother, whiskey peddlers from Kentucky and Tennessee shipped some pretty rough moonshine down the Mississippi to New Orleans. The bar owners were left to their own devices to make sure the stuff tasted decent enough to sell and no one ended up blind on a permanent basis, you know.” Hillary pauses for a sip of her favorite whiskey and smacks her lips, but only twice.
“They hired fancy mixologists and all sorts of rectifiers to do the job, but young Marty was the one who came up with the answer, and this is it.” She grabs the bottle from the table. “Marty’s secret whiskey blend of orange and vanilla and a touch of cinnamon and, of course, the alcohol and I don’t know what all else. My Great Grandma Pearl’s boy friend came up with the recipe for Southern Comfort, the best damn whiskey a man can buy at any price; the only whiskey fit for sipping, but you can’t rough it up or you’ll lose the flavor. That’s something, isn’t it?”
Jeff and I shake our heads. Yes, that’s something all right. “Sure is,” Jeff says.
The wacky Hillary Boudreaux is crazy as a bed bug. She’s as pleased as a Southern Comfort punch. A road map of wrinkles that had covered her sagging jowls is stretched smooth for a moment by her ear to ear grin. The fireplace flames snap and crackle and dance in the still black pupils of Hillary’s eyes.
“I’ve been told Marty spent quite a lot of his time down here in Thibodaux chasing after Great Grandma Pearl; stayed right here on this property they say. Of course, that was in the old house before it caught fire and burned to the ground; left nothing but a big pile of charcoal and some ivory piano keys too.” Still holding the bottle of Southern Comfort in her fist, Hillary leans forward on the sofa’s cushion.
“Care for a shot Mister Barker?”
“No, thank you.”
“Thank you. Don’t mind if I do.”
“You’re welcome son.” The ice crackles as Hillary pours two or three ounces of Southern Comfort into Jeff’s glass. She hands him her spoon.
There is a problem at hand. How can Jeff get Hillary back on track? Where is Waynette Boudreaux? That’s all we really want to know. Jeff decides to take advantage of the lull in Hillary’s dissertation and pops the question.
“Mrs. Boudreaux, about….”
“Waynette? Yes, of course. Sorry son. I didn’t mean to ramble on so. It’s just that I don’t get much company these days. Of course Jana’s here for me and we like our checkers even if the game does get a little boring what with me winning any time my mind is half way alert and isn’t muddled by an extra shot or two. But that’s not Jana’s fault what with me being white and just naturally smarter.”
This woman is killing me.
“Waynette left home the day after Johnny got stupid drunk and told her what he had done – how he had set you up and ruined all her plans.”
“Johnny put some kind of drops in your drinks to mess up your mind; I don’t remember the name – did you know that?”
“I always suspected it, but I never knew for certain.”
“Well, that’s what he did. Hell, boy, you never had a chance.”
“Anyway, I didn’t see Waynette again until after Emma shot Johnny Ray. Waynette came back home for the funeral, which kind of surprised me, but then again, even though he was a bastard, well maybe not a real bastard, but I can’t be for sure one way or the other about that, he was still her older brother-or at least half brother – and I guess that proves blood is thicker than water as they say. I don’t really know what it means, but you get the idea, don’t you?”
Jeff shook his head. “Yes, I think I do.”
“We had some words after the funeral, and somehow, Waynette got it in the back of her head I knew what Johnny was up to all along; she thought I was in on the whole thing, drugs and all. She reasoned Johnny Ray didn’t have the brain power to come up with such a scheme and I must say it’s a stretch for me to believe it myself. But, I swear to you now, just as I swore to her then and there on the good book, I had nothing to do with it, Jeff; nothing at all.”
Hillary blinks and nervously glances into the fire before rambling on.
“I was happy for Waynette and looking forward to the wedding, even if she was going to marry an Indian. Now, I’m not prejudice against Indians or anything like it, you know, so don’t get me wrong, but you would have to admit it might have been a little dicey for us down here, especially if you two started filling the neighborhood up with a bunch of half-breeds – you know what I mean? But those sorts of things tend to work themselves out one way or another. Hell, you and Waynette weren’t planning on living around here anyway, were you?”
“That’s for sure.” Jeff gulps down two shots of Southern Comfort, not shaken or stirred, the finest whiskey on planet earth.
“That’s the way I looked at it for sure, you know, but Waynette couldn’t bring herself to see it that way. I haven’t seen her since: been three years now. Oh, she’s called me now and then – Christmas or Mother’s Day, maybe Thanksgiving – and we talk some, but there’s always a chill in the air about it; like we were two lonesome strangers with nothing in common other than the loneliness itself and one of us had dialed a wrong number and decided to have a conversation with who ever is on the other end of the line just the same.” Hillary Boudreaux pours herself another shot of whiskey and sits quietly, her eyes cast down at the glass cradled in her hands.
Mrs. Boudreaux leans hard with both hands on the ivory swan’s-head handle of her cane and pushes herself up from the sofa’s deep velvety cushion. She walks across the room to a hand carved mahogany buffet concealed in the fire’s shadows. She opens the center drawer. She sorts through a pile of papers until she finds a pale pink cocktail napkin. There is a message written across its center.
“Oh yes, here it is. Waynette moved over to New Orleans when she decided it was time she got out of Thibodaux. Day after Johnny Ray spilled the beans, Waynette and her best friend, Betty Lou Riggins packed up and left – you remember Betty Lou don’t you Jeff?”
Betty Lou was going to be the bride’s maid at Jeff’s wedding. Jeff nods his head; yes, he remembers Betty Lou Riggins.
“I thought you probably did; pretty girl that Betty Lou. Anyway, Betty Lou and Waynette piled most all there stuff into Betty Lou’s old Chevy station wagon and just moved to the French Quarter, didn’t tell a soul. Her and Betty Lou been like Siamese twins since they were old enough to crawl around on these old wooden floors; couldn’t pry them apart with a crow-bar. Even dressed alike and wore their hair the same when they were little girls first off to school. Now, here they are, off living together in the New Orleans. I swear, I just don’t know….” Hillary Boudreaux’s voice trails away. She points at the smudged blue ink note that had been scribbled with a ball point pen across the napkin.
“920 Chartres Street, that’s the address as far as I know.” She hands the napkin to Jeff.
“Thank you, ma’am,” Jeff says. He takes the paper, folds it into fourths and slides it into his back pocket as if it is destined to be one of those pieces of paper that end up forgotten until after it’s run through the washer and dryer and crumbled into tiny faded pieces.
Something is queer here. There shouldn’t be anything more important to Jeff than the address written on that square of paper, but he didn’t even look at it before folding it away. It was like he wasn’t interested in what was written there, or already had all the information he could ever want or need.
That’s it; he knew where Waynette was before Hillary Boudreaux opened her mouth. He knew where she was before we left Winslow Arizona; before this cross country chase began. If that is true, then why the elaborate charade? What is my roll? What am I doing here for Christ’s sake?
“You don’t know?”
I look across to a dark corner of the room where the voice had come from. The sparks from Einstein’s pipe glow in the shadows. I shrug. “I don’t have a clue.”
“You surprise me, Gilles, you being a big shot novel writer and all. It’s so simple; I would have thought you would have stumbled across the answer by now.”
But I hadn’t.
Of course I should have known.
“Thank you Ma’am,” Jeff says again
“Oh, don’t you bother thanking me just yet. Like I said, five years can bring down some powerful changes on a person, you know – some folks more than others. And Waynette never was one to let the grass grow under her feet much. Now, you boys better be moving on. It’s a fair drive to New Orleans and I’m afraid our visit has tired me some.” Mrs. Boudreaux picks up a small bell from her chair-side table and rings it. “Jana. Jana?”
Jana appears, an apparition from the shadows, standing next to Hillary Boudreaux’s chair. “Yes Ma’am?” She says.
I look at Jeff. Where the hell had Jana been before she was summoned by Mrs. Boudreaux’s bell? Had she materialized out of thin air? He gave me his shoulder shrug; my guess was as good as his. The Southern Comfort had addled his mind. He didn’t care if Jana had been sitting by the fire or dropped out of the sky. He emptied the last drops of whiskey from his glass and crunched a cube of ice between his teeth.
“Please show these gentlemen to the door, Jana.”
Jana leads us down the hall to the front entry where Johnny Ray’s toy pickup truck lays on its side blocking the doorway. Jana gives the truck a swift, short kick. It skids screeching across the marble floor slamming into the wall at the bottom of the stairs. I can tell she’s done that before.
“That boy,” she says. “He could sure use a good switching.”
Jana follows us to the veranda’s steps. Einstein sits impatiently waiting on the back seat next to the driver’s side open window of the Chevrolet. Johnny Ray kneels in tall grass across the drive next to a stand of cattails and marsh grass stalking Snowy Egrets with his bow and arrow.
Hillary Boudreaux had bought the boy a toy bow with arrows tipped by rubber suction cups shortly after he first came to live with her when his mother was sent to prison She had showered him with all sorts of games and boxes of toys thinking “things” might help him to settle in and put the image he had in his head of his mother blowing bits and pieces of his daddy’s head all over their bedroom wall onto his brain’s back burner. But Johnny Ray wasn’t much interested in the toys other than to see how small of pieces he could smash them into with the sledge-hammer the hired man kept in a shed out by the barn.
Johnny Ray Two didn’t have the attention span of a gnat, so that left out monopoly and Clue and Old Maid. He liked things he could pedal fast and he did love his bow and arrow. Johnny Ray could spend hours stalking imaginary prey across the Boudreaux plantation. He would practice shooting his suction cupped arrows at targets until the day was gone and it was too dark to see. When practicing his shooting he was a totally different person; as different as Dr. Jekyll was from his Mister Hyde.
Hillary was happy her grandson had found something to occupy his time. She hired Louisiana’s top professional archery instructor who outfitted Johnny Ray with the finest archery gear Hillary’s money could buy. And he taught Johnny Ray to be the very finest of young archers in the Louisiana bayous – Another monster on the road to hell.
“Johnny Ray! Johnny Ray!” Jana stands with her hands on her hips yelling his name into the wind until Johnny Ray pops up from the cattails and weeds with his coon skin cap eschew. He looks at Jana as if he were suddenly startled from a deep sleep.
“Get over here right now Johnny Ray. Your grandma will skin us both she catches you shooting those Egrets again. You remember what the sheriff said last time don’t you?”