I pulled into Steve’s Gas & Goodies and shoved two quarters in the Coke machine just inside the store. Steve’s wife, a short toothless old woman with severe dark eyes, sat on the stool behind the counter and watched me. I nodded and pulled a copy of the free Rusti Nikel from the stack on the counter. The Nikel was one of those free advertising newspapers. I scanned it for my ad.
“You in there?” Steve’s wife asked. She smacked her lips as if she were eating something.
“Yeah,” I said, not looking up at her. “I’ve got an ad in here somewhere.”
I found it in the middle of the newspaper sandwiched between Caaf’s Pig Bar-B-Q Stand—You never knew Bar-B-Q could be so good—and Cathy Lejeune’s Lingerie Shop—Where sheer is a fashion statement. I read it aloud:
Cajun PI Detective Agency
John LeGrand, Licensed Private Investigator
Confidentiality guaranteed. Fees negotiable.
Call: 1-MORE BETTER
I was hoping the ten-dollar bill I spent on the ad would attract a customer or two. The part time Criminal Investigations class I taught at Ellisonville Junior College was not earning me enough to keep me in groceries and gas for my old Dodge Ram van.
“That sounds real good,” the old woman said. “But that MORE BETTER sounds kinda queer. How come you don’t have a number like all the rest of us?”
“I don’t?” I said in mock surprise. “Damn telephone company.”
“They bad, that’s for sure, yeah,” she said, completely missing the sarcasm. “Just last week they sent my sister, Justine Vidrine out over Bastille way, a bill for $215.00. It caught Justine by surprise, you know, being as she don’t have no phone.” She grinned at me, revealing purple unhealthy-looking gums. “Maybe they could write your bills out like they do your number. Wouldn’t that be a good one, eh?” She laughed, a series of short breathless snuffles.
“That would be a good one,” I said and left as quickly as I could before she started on how cell phones gave everybody brain cancer and the telephone companies needed to give anybody, who was ever in the presence of one, money. Steve’s Gas and Goodies was a regular stop for me on the way to the college, and I knew Steve’s wife very well.
I threw the Rusti Nikel through the opened window of my van, climbed in, and crossed my fingers hoping that it would start. The van was a gas guzzling, rust bucket with a mind of its own, but it was all I had. I couldn’t afford anything else. The starter clicked twice before the engine turned over. I had exactly fifteen minutes to make it to class.
Ellisonville Junior College, located on the outskirts of the city just north of the city limits, consisted of the three original buildings: the Administrative building, a one-story brick rectangle, which housed all the staff functions, Edwards Hall, the three-story science and math building named after the first president of the college, and Hebert Hall the three-story humanities and social sciences building named after Huey Hebert, a popular political science teacher who dropped dead of a heart attack during graduation. A fourth building recently completed, contained several state-of-the-art computer labs and science labs. The administration named the building after Sam Quibodeaux, a graduate of EJC. Sam invented a computer program that made it easier for users to monitor and block unwanted emails. He drank all his earnings and then shot himself, or so the story goes.
I walked into my office, a closet-sized room next to the social studies conference room. I shared the room with three other part time teachers. I picked up my books, glanced at my calendar—their topics for the investigative reports were due—and rushed to my classroom. I met Janet, my department head, in the hallway. She was just coming in. She wore a red, white, and blue outfit with a slit on the left side. There was enough material in her dress to make three flags. She stopped me.
“Good morning, John.” She glanced at the hall clock. I was five minutes late according to it.
“Penny for your thoughts,” I said, but she didn’t take the bait.
“One of your students came in yesterday. Complained about your constant tardiness.”
“Let me guess—Mustafa Jones?” She didn’t say anything, but I knew I was right. Mustafa had been a thorn in my side all semester. “There are over six billion people in this world. Why did I have to get saddled with Mustafa Jones?”
“I know he’s difficult, John, but he does have a point. You’re constantly late.”
“Five minutes at the most, Janet. Hell, it takes me that long just to spread out my books.”
“Just try to be on time from now on, John. Please.”
My classroom was just down the hall from my office. The room was a 20 foot by 30 foot rectangular box with no windows, black boards at the rear and the front of the room, off white tiles (probably asbestos), painted cinder block walls, drop down ceiling with florescent lights, a television and VCR bracketed against the rear wall, and a round Franklin clock above the front black board, usually five minutes slow or fast. Someone had covered the two side walls with literature posters of dead writers: Faulkner, Hemingway, Chopin, Twain and a handful of other more obscure ones. My desk was a chrome frame, topped with a ¾-inch sheet of pressed wood, covered with a plastic walnut veneer. The student desks were uncomfortable-looking plastic and chrome affairs crowded together in rows.
When I walked in, the ten students who attended regularly had gathered in a small group near the middle. Mustafa sat at the rear of the class away from everyone else. He looked up at the clock to let me know he was watching me. I couldn’t figure out why he was taking this class, let alone pursuing a degree in criminal justice. He didn’t seem to have any interest what-so-ever in law or the application of law. Noah Bergeron sat right in front of my desk, of course. Noah was a good student, if a little over eager. He started his research project weeks ahead of everybody else. As soon as he saw me, his hand shot up
“Give me a chance to spread my books out, Noah. Then we’ll get to questions and answers.”
I dumped my textbooks and grade book on the desk, and faced the class.
“Good morning,” I said. “Any questions before we begin?”
Noah’s arm shot up.
“Mr. LeGrand,” he said in his chirpy bird-like voice. “I’ve got a problem with my investigative source. What happens if he doesn’t want to talk to me?”
“Good question, Noah.” I addressed the whole class. “As I told you at the beginning of the semester, I want your investigative projects to be as realistic as possible, but some of you will run into the same problem Noah has. Any suggestions on what to do?”
“Hound the son-of-a-bitch until he talks,” Mustafa suggested.
“No. The last thing I want any of you to do is get into trouble over this.”
Melissa Franklin, the little dark haired girl sitting behind Noah, spoke up.
“We can find some other source to interrogate.”
“Exactly, Melissa, but, uh, I think it’s better if we interview them. If your main source refuses to talk to you, go to his secretary or next-door neighbor or even his wife. There’s always a back door.”
Everybody nodded, even Mustafa, and the rest of the class went smoothly with no problems.
I drove home after the class and plopped down in front of the television with a Coke. I found an old “Andy Griffith Show” and laughed along with Andy, Floyd, Gomer and especially Barney. When the phone rang, Barney was just about to accidentally shoot off his one bullet. Of course, no one would be hurt because of the accident. No one ever was.
I reached over and pulled the phone to my ear. As soon as I could afford it, I was going to buy one of those cancer-causing cell phones.
“Hello,” I grumbled, turning the volume down on the television at the same time.
I recognized his voice right away. It was Noah.
“Yeah, Noah. What do you want, and why can’t it wait until Wednesday?”
“I think I’m in trouble Mr. LeGrand.” His voice trembled, hit a higher note and broke. In the background, I could hear what sounded like Cajun music.
“Tell me about it Noah. What kind of trouble?”
“Remember I told you that my source didn’t want to talk to me?” He didn’t wait for my answer. “I went back after class and tried talking to his secretary.”
“Good,” I said. “What came of it? Anything interesting?”
“She talked some—I think maybe too much because I think I’m being followed, Mr. LeGrand.”
Sometimes the students get caught up in their assignments and start imagining things they’ve seen on television or the movies. I was sure this was the case with Noah, but I didn’t want to come down too hard on him. He was a good student, after all.
“Noah, who is your source? What are you writing your investigative report on?”
“Oh my God, Mr. LeGrand. I have to hang up. They’re here. They just drove up.”
“Who, Noah? Who just drove up? Noah? Where are you?” But he had already hung up.
I listened to the dial tone for a moment or two, before hanging up the phone. I debated what to do. It was probably Noah’s over active imagination playing tricks with him. I was sure he wasn’t the kind of student to be playing a trick on his teacher,—Mustafa perhaps, but not Noah—but I wasn’t particularly worried. Just in case, though I decided to call Pat Broussard.
Pat answered his office phone on the third ring.
“Sheriff’s office,” he grumbled. “What can I do for you?”
Pat was the Ellison Parish Sheriff. He and I went back to my days on the force. When I decided to come out of the liquor bottle I’d buried myself into, he helped me get my PI license and got me that part time job at EJC.
“Pat,” I said. “You just missed it. Barney nearly shot his foot off with that bullet of his.”
“Damn it, John. This is a business office. Just because you aren’t meaningfully employed doesn’t mean the rest of the world isn’t.”
“Come on, Pat. You know you like Barney.”
“Yeah, but I’ve seen that episode at least ten times, maybe more.”
I smiled remembering how he and I would eat lunch and watch “The Andy Griffith Show” together.
“You got any business with me, John? If not, I got to get back to the grind.”
“It’s probably nothing but a kid just called me—one of my students. Said someone followed him after he tried to interview his investigative report source. He hung up on me a few minutes ago, whispering desperately that they were there—they had followed him wherever he was.”
“Some kid pulling your leg, is all.”
“Not this one, Pat. He’s a good one. An overactive imagination maybe.”
“There it is then. What do you want me to do about it?”
“Nothing, Pat. Just something in his voice worried me a little. That’s all.”
“Want me to send someone out there? Where was it?”
“Don’t know. He didn’t say.”
“Well, if something comes up, give me a ring. Meanwhile, why don’t you go back to your television show?”
“Thanks, Pat. There’s about ten minutes left.”
I hung up and turned up volume. I figured I’d deal with Noah’s problem on Wednesday.
I showed up to class five minutes early on Wednesday. The students were shocked. Mustafa grinned and made some wisecrack remark that I didn’t catch. I scanned the classroom for Noah, but he wasn’t there. He never did show up.
After class, I asked Patsy, the Social Studies secretary to look him up for me on her computer.
“Two twenty-five Joe Louis Drive. No phone. No e-mail address.”
“Where is that, Patsy?”
She looked up at me, her green eyes playful.
“Do I look like a map?”
“With those pretty eyes of yours, Honey, you could be anything you wanted to be.”
“You could get in trouble for a statement like. It’s pretty sexist.”
“Sexist is just an idea with an ist at the end of it.” I winked at her.
“You are impossible.”
I give her my best John LeGrand leer. She shook her head and turned her attention to her computer.
“Hold on,” she said and clicked a few keys. A street map of Ellisonville popped up on the screen. “It’s on the south side of town,” she said pointing it out with a manicured fingernail. “Crosses the Serpentville blacktop right here. Two twenty-five is on the west side.”
I jumped in my van and followed Main Street to where it turned into the Serpentville highway, kept going for about a quarter mile or so, and took a left on Joe Louis Drive. Two twenty-five was a squat little shack covered with peeling brick siding and a tin roof. I pulled into the dirt driveway and parked in front of the house. I climbed up the rickety front steps and knocked on the screen door. No answer. I opened the screen door and tried the front door. It was unlocked, so I opened it a crack called out Noah’s name. No response, so I entered.
The room, a combination kitchen and living room, was a mess, the kind of mess a young single male might live in. There were dirty dishes stacked on the table and the sink. The floor, unfinished yellow pine it looked like, was dirty, stained and looked like it hadn’t been swept in months. Bits of leftover food, dust and assorted trash littered it. An old torn and battered couch sat against the far wall. A couple of books lay opened on it: a John Grisham novel and the textbook for my class. Old newspapers lay strewn all around the couch. I checked the dates on the newspapers. The latest one was two days before. I walked to the only closed door and opened it. The bedroom was even messier than the kitchen/living room. Dirty clothes littered the unmade bed and the floor. The room had a musty, sweaty smell, as if someone had lived in it too long.
I returned to the kitchen and the living room and carefully surveyed them. There was no television, no phone, no radio. Although the condition of the house was not what I expected of Noah, I didn’t see anything that suggested foul play, so I took one last look around and started to walk out when I noticed a folded up piece of paper. I hadn’t noticed it before because it lay half-hidden under the stove. I reached down and picked it up. I carefully unfolded it. Written in a careful hand and in all caps: NO QUARTERS. It meant absolutely nothing to me, but I slipped it in my shirt pocket anyway and walked out of the place.
My answering machine was blinking madly when I entered my house, another reason I needed a cell phone. The thing was usually filled with telemarketers’ ploys to get me to buy something I didn’t need. I pushed the play button expecting to hear some salesperson trying to sell me a satellite TV system or fertilizer for my postage size front lawn, but it wasn’t. It was Pat.
“Tennis,” he said. “Noon at the EJC courts.”
I groaned. Pat never wanted to play when it was cool—only when it was hot enough, “to sweat the badness out of you” or cold enough “to check the gears out,” whatever that meant. I grabbed my battered Head tennis racket and climbed into my old van again. I had just about enough time to swing by Steve’s Gas and Goodies for a six-pack of Gatorade
Pat was practicing his serve when I pulled into the parking lot. He was the only person on the courts—the only one foolish enough to be out at that time of day. Then it occurred to me just as I was opening the gate that I was out, too.
“Hey, John,” he called out. “Come on in. The water’s fine.” He was dripping with sweat already. His tee shirt was soaked, and his shorts were beginning to darken.
“Yeah, I’ll bet it is. Give me a few minutes to stretch.” I leaned against the net post and stretched my calves. Pat slammed a serve well wide of its mark and joined me.
“I don’t know why you bother with that stretching stuff. Hell, we warm up plenty before we start.”
“It helps, Pat.”
He shrugged and guzzled several deep drinks from his water bottle.
“Hey, how did it turn out with that student of yours, John?”
“Never showed up to class. I have no idea. I even went by his place. Nobody home. Messy but nothing out of the ordinary.”
“Probably found a woman and is on his way to California right now. Kids got nothing to hold them down to one place now-a-days.”
“Not this one, Pat. Doesn’t seem to be the type.”
“Don’t know why I’m mentioning it. Probably doesn’t have anything to do with you or your student. Just after your call Monday, the office got a call about a disturbance over at the Gumbo Shack out in the woods about ten miles north of here. Ever hear of it?”
“It’s just a shack really—sells beer and some greasy Cajun fare. Seems some kid was using the pay phone outside when a truck comes skidding to a stop and picks up the kid. The guy called it in because he thought he heard the kid yelling. He wasn’t sure, though. Said it could have just been a bunch of kids having a good time. We didn’t send anybody over, thinking that it wasn’t much. We told the owner to give us a call if anything else happened.”
“What about the kid’s car? How did he get there?”
Pat guzzled some more water.
“They say ice water isn’t good for you when you’re hot like this. I say they’re full of it. There’s nothing better in my opinion. Nothing that tastes this good could be bad for you.”
“Stay on track, Pat.”
“When the report finally made it to my desk, I thought about you, so I called the guy, Walter Gazin I think his name was, and asked him about the car. Said there had been a car, but he couldn’t remember what kind it was or what color even. Said somebody came by about an hour or two later and drove off in it. Figures it was the boy, so he didn’t pay it much attention. Happens all the time—people come by his place, park and leave with someone else. Come back later and pick up the vehicle.”
“Doesn’t sound like my boy, Pat, but I think I’ll take a trip to the Gumbo Shack.”
“Figured you might. But first why don’t you let me show you how to play this game, eh?”
I couldn’t concentrate on the game like I usually did, so Pat beat me pretty bad—6-1; 6-2. He wanted to play another set, but I had sweated enough to make me an angel. I left him practicing his serves, the sweat raining from his body.
The Gumbo Shack was ten miles north of Ellisonville along a snaky blacktop, lined on either side by pine forests. The building stood behind a graveled parking lot, ringed by towering pine trees. A dusk to dawn light flicked on just as I drove into the parking lot the dust clouding up behind me. I entered through a screen door. An attic fan sucked in the outside air and some of the dust I had stirred up. The place was dark and smelled like fried food. A waitress, wearing a short skirt flitted in front of me carrying a tray of fried catfish. To my left, was a covey of tables and chairs with only one or two taken. A bar stood in gloom on my right; several people sat at it. A small blue neon sign provided light for the customers. Cajun music played out of a jukebox near the front door. I pulled a stool and sat. The bartender made his way to me.
“What’ll be?” He asked, not very encouraging.
“I’ll have a Coke.” He nodded and walked off.
“I’m looking for Walter Gazin,” I said and slid him a five when he returned.
He took the five and pocketed it.
“That’ll be me. What can I do for you?”
“About two days ago, you phoned the police about some kid who was shoved into a pickup.”
“You a cop?”
“No. I’m a private detective and a teacher. The kid might have been one of my students.”
“As you can see, we’re pretty isolated out here. Nothing for miles either way. Most of my customers are kids who come out here to get away from the grownups. Know what I mean?” I nodded. “I let them drink a little and cut up a little more than the joints out in the towns. Hell, most of them are camping out somewhere around here anyway. It’s not like they have to drive all over the place.”
“The kid?” I prodded.
“Oh yeah. Every once in a while, I see something that makes me nervous, so I call the Sheriff’s Department. It’s just me covering my ass. You know what I mean?” I nodded and stifled the urge to prod him again. “Anyway, that afternoon, I saw this kid talking on that phone out there.” He nodded toward the screen door. I could just see the edge of a public phone. “That’s nothing unusual, you know what I mean? People are always using the public phone. It’s just I saw him, that’s all.”
“What’d he look like?”
“Like I told that deputy, I don’t know. He had his back to me talking on the phone.”
“What was he wearing?”
“What all these kids wear jeans and a tee shirt, white, I think.”
“Okay. What happened to make you call the police?”
“I was waiting on a customer when I heard this pickup pull into the parking lot. That gravel makes a lot of noise when the screen door is open, and the dust creeps in so you can smell it. You know what I mean?” I nodded. “This guy gets out on the passenger side and grabs the kid from the phone and drags him to the pickup. Figured it was some kind of kid game. You know what I mean?”
“The pickup? What did it look like?”
“I don’t know exactly. I wasn’t paying too much attention. I had customers and all.”
I pulled a five-dollar bill from my wallet and placed it on the bar. For an out of work private investigator, I was spending money as if I had it.
“Don’t you remember anything? A make? A model? A color?”
“It was red. Definitely red. And it was one of those extra window kinds. You know what I mean—like it had an extra seat in the back.”
“How about the passenger, the guy that jumped out? What did he look like?”
“Young. Maybe a little older than the kid on the phone. Don’t know for sure. Had a baseball cap on his head—black and gold, like the Saints. You know what I mean?”
“Anything else you might remember?”
“No afraid not. Oh, wait, he was black. A couple hours later, I look out to see if that kid’s car is still there, but it isn’t. I figured he came by while I was busy and picked it up. You know what I mean?”
“What did the car look like? Do you remember?”
“Dark. Probably navy blue or black. Beat up, with rust spots all over it. Looked like it’d been through a hard time. Know what I mean.”
“Any idea what kind of car it was?”
“No, can’t say that I do.” He paused and scratched his head. Someone called out his name, and he walked to the other end of the bar to wait on a customer. He came back a few minutes later. “Listen,” he said. “I just remembered something about that pickup truck.”
“The truck sported one of those, what do you call it, vanity plates on the front bumper. This little cartoon guy is pissing on a Ford truck. I remember thinking it was a funny cartoon. You know what I mean?”
“You didn’t see who was driving it?”
“No. I don’t even know what kind of truck it was. Only that it was red and had that extended cab. For all I know, there could be hundreds of them around. You know what I mean?”
I thanked him, and he returned to his customers. I finished my drink and watched the few customers scarf down the fried catfish. It certainly smelled good. I called Walter over and ordered a platter. I gave him my last ten-dollar bill.
“You made a good choice,” he said. “The catfish is fresh right out of the water this morning—know what I mean.”
I sampled one of the filets on my plate and nodded. He was right. The fish was great.
I left the Gumbo Shack and drove straight to the school. The outside doors were locked already, so I dug out the copy of the key I’d filched off of Janet and let myself in. I loved the building at night and on weekends. There was never anybody there, and every little sound echoed up and down the hallways. I let myself into the temp office and rifled through the filing cabinet until I found my three folders. I chose the current semester folder and thumbed through the student papers—mostly exercises that, for whatever reason, I didn’t return to them. Several of them had Noah’s name scrawled across the tops, but nothing suggested where his interest lay. The last one I looked at had been assigned early in the semester—I had asked the students to present a criminal case in court. It involved a brief oral presentation, in which the student invented a case to present before a judge, me. Noah’s report involved a crooked politician who embezzled money from an eighty-year old widow. It had been nothing more than a bad TV script—no proof, no facts, just a weak and subjective scenario. I replaced it in the folder, shoved the file drawer shut and made a mental note to myself. Keep closer track of what your students are doing in class.
I drove back to my home and made myself a cup of tea. It was at times like these that I wished I hadn’t decided to stop drinking. A stiff shot of bourbon or a cold beer would be heaven-sent. I hadn’t had a drink in six months, but deep in my heart of hearts, I knew I was going to fall off that wagon. It was a sin not to drink in Louisiana’s heat and humidity. The tea was from a container of green tea that the last woman I dated left in my cabinet. She had been shocked that I had no tea at all in my house and decided to rectify that shortcoming in my character. I never called her again or answered her calls. My life was complicated enough without someone adding on a few more complications. I did appreciate the green tea, however. It came in handy at times like these.
I searched the television for anything interesting and found a public television special on the life cycle of the Mediterranean fruit fly. Perfect. I drank my green tea and delved into the world of the insects. The combination had the desired effect. Just as the show focused on the larvae fruit-eating stage of the insect, my mind rebelled. I started thinking about Noah.
Several questions rose to consciousness: Who was Noah Bergeron? Where were his relatives? Mental note to myself: Get Patsy to give me more information about Noah. Where was he from? He had a good Cajun name, but not much of an accent. That hadn’t occurred to me before. In the background, fruit flies were hatching from hard little cocoons, and a peach farmer complained about not being able to spray some sort of poison to rid the area of the flies.
The phone rang. I muted the television and picked up the receiver. It was Pat.
“Johnny boy, hear anything from that student of yours?”
“Not a thing, Pat. I had a talk with Walter over at the Gumbo Shack. He didn’t have anything to add.”
“Well, I had a little free time, so I did a little searching for your boy.”
I perked up. That meant that Pat was curious, and that meant something was not right somewhere.
“What’d you find?”
“Your boy doesn’t exist. I ran his name through our system, and he simply does not exist.”
“Come on, Pat. He registered with the school. Surely he has ACT scores or a high school diploma or a social security number.”
“Has to be fake.”
“Pat, I know the type. There’s no way he would do such a thing. There simply is no way.”
“Normally, I go with your gut instinct, John, but this time you’re off base. The kid is a non-entity and that usually means criminal. There’s something in his past or present he’d like to keep hidden.”
“I don’t get it, Pat. Why take classes—an investigation class at that? What is that going to earn him?”
“You got me, John. I had a couple of deputies go over his shack when I found out.”
“What’d they come up with?”
“Nothing. Of course you’d already cleaned out the place yourself.”
“The only thing I found was a piece of paper with NO QUARTERS written on it—all caps.”
“A piece of paper on the floor just under the stove.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Nothing, probably. It just stood out, you know. The place is a complete mess and folded neatly is a piece of paper. I don’t know, Pat, it just seemed out of place, so I picked it up and put in my pocket.”
“So you think this piece of paper is important?”
“I don’t know. Maybe you were right about this kid. He’s headed to California or someplace with some woman.”
“I’m not thinking that anymore, John. I smell something crooked, and believe me, I’m going to get to the bottom of it. If this guy contacts you, or you find out anything new about him, I want you to give me a call. Okay?”
“Sure, Pat. Always.” I hung up.
I couldn’t believe my luck. I was driving down Main Street and saw a red Chevrolet extended cab pickup parked in front of The Courthouse Café.
The Courthouse Café was squeezed between the Ellisonville Feed & Seed store and the Main Street Drug Store. Farmers dropped in for a cup of coffee while Billy Basineau loaded their pickups with cow feed or fertilizer. Old women and old men came in for a soda pop while Althea Miller filled their prescription. Other regulars were sheriff deputies and office workers from the courthouse across the street. It was rarely standing room only in the mornings, but there was always a crowd.
I parked the van along the street right in front of the pickup. I circled it, but there was vanity plate on it.
The interior of the Courthouse Café smelled like bacon and coffee. Several people sat at tables huddled around steaming cups of coffee and over easy eggs and talked in soft monotones. I joined the five or six men seated on the stools at the counter and caught the attention of the young girl working the other side of it. I recognized her, but I couldn’t say from where—probably a student at the college.
“What’ll it be?” She asked once she stood across from me. She had shiny ebony skin, dark animated eyes, and black hair arranged in cornrows under the little red beret Sam Martin was having them wear. She smiled revealing even white teeth.
“A cup of coffee—cream and sugar.”
She slid a sugar bowl in front of me, pulled a small cream container from the refrigerator behind her, and placed that in front of me. Then she left to fetch my coffee.
“Do you know whose truck that is?” I asked once she returned with the coffee. I nodded at the picture window and the pickup parked right outside.
“The mayor’s,” she said without hesitation. “Parks it there every morning. That’ll be seventy-five cents, Mr. LeGrand.”
“You know me?”
“Yes sir. I go to EJC. A friend of mine is taking your class this semester.”
I wasn’t listening to her anymore. The mayor of Serpentville was ex-police chief Fred Domingue, an unpleasant little Cajun, who liked to strut around giving orders. Pat had several run-ins with him over crime scene jurisdiction. Two years before, he retired from the police force and ran for mayor. His only opponent, Tee Sly Babineaux, would have won if he hadn’t lost his life in a real nasty car accident along the Atchafalaya levee. He’d been coming back from a fishing trip in the swamp when his pickup ran off the levee and plunged into the swamp waters. Apparently, he was thrown from the truck because his body was found two days later half eaten by alligators, alligator gars, and a whole slew of other Atchafalaya carnivores. Fred expressed his condolences and marched right into the mayor’s office uncontested.
The girl looked at me strangely.
“Yes,” I said shaking my head a little. “That’s Mayor Domingue truck out there? Are you sure?”
“Yes sir. Parks it there every morning. Comes in for a ‘to go’ cup before walking to city hall.”
City hall was only about a block away in the shadows of the courthouse.
“Do you know if there’s another truck like that in town?”
“There might be, but they don’t park in that spot.”
“Have you ever noticed a vanity plate on the truck? A funny cartoon maybe.”
She thought about it a while.
“Maybe, but I can’t be sure. I’m not much of a truck person.”
I pushed a dollar at her, and she left for another customer.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Mustafa Pierre.
“You putting the moves on my woman, Mr. LeGrand?”
I glanced at the girl, and she made a face. I figured Mustafa hadn’t checked with her about that.
“Hello, Mustafa. I’m just trying to figure out what happened to Noah Bergeron.”
“The nerdy guy who asks all the questions?”
“Yeah. You know him?”
“Nope. We don’t run in the same circles.”
“Listen, Mustafa. You’re a pretty savvy guy. I mean, you’re popular around the JC and people confide in you. Do you think you could find out some information on Noah for me? It could be part of your assignment.”
“Yeah? You’ll give me an A if I find some dirt on this guy?”
“Well, let’s see what you dig up first, eh?”
I bought a paper and drove home. The headlines told of a raid by the Louisiana State Police on a farmhouse just inside the city limits, an area annexed by the city several years earlier but never developed adequately for suburban neighborhoods. The inhabitants had been suspected of running a meth lab, but when the cops showed up, there was nobody home, and the place had been cleaned out, according to the lieutenant who led the raid. The newspaper ran a picture of the house—nothing special, a weather worn shack, with a tin roof and an unmowed yard. It wasn’t very much different than the house Noah lived in.
“It was almost as if they were expecting us,” the newspaper quoted the lieutenant.
I flipped the page and read the rest of the paper, halfheartedly. I couldn’t get the fact that the mayor drove a red extended cab pickup off my mind. Of course, there was no vanity plate, so it probably wasn’t the mayor’s truck at the Gumbo Shack. There was much I didn’t like about Fred Domingue, but I couldn’t see him kidnapping a college kid in broad daylight.
The Super Station played Who Done It? an old Abbot and Costello movie, and I watched it until I dozed off. The phone woke me. I glanced at the television; some gorgeous model sold lipstick. I clicked it off and picked up the phone.
“Hello,” I grumbled.
“Mr. LeGrand?” The muffled voice asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “This is John LeGrand. What can I do for you?”
“It is not safe for you to continue asking question about your ex-student, Mr. LeGrand. Unless you want to join him in the hereafter.”
The line went dead. I checked the time. It was three ten in the afternoon. The threat meant that I was on the right track. Something I had done in the past couple of days was making somebody nervous. I stood up from the couch and took a shower. There was still time to see the mayor.
City Hall was a low-slung gray cement building with a tar and graveled roof, thin rectangular windows, and glass doors. You walked into a foyer of sorts that had padded benches against three of the walls and pictures of past mayors hanging at eye level. A brass tripod held a flip chart that announced upcoming city events written in blue and green Marks A Lots. A directory on the wall indicated that Mayor Domingue’s office was located down the hall to the right. I headed that way. I walked into the mayor’s outer office and was greeted by a short plump woman with bleached blonde hair and enormous breasts that threatened to pop out of the white blouse she wore.
“Can I help you?” She asked once the door shut behind me.
“Yes,” I said walking up to her desk. “Would it be possible to have a few words with Mayor Domingue.”
She fiddled with the top button of her blouse.
“Can I have your name please and your business with Mayor Domingue?”
“John LeGrand, and I just need to ask him a few questions about a student of mine.”
“Just a moment,” she said picking up the phone and punching in four numbers. She waited a few seconds. “Mr. Domingue, a Mr. John LeGrand is here asking to have a few moments with you. Needs to ask you a few questions about one of his students.” She glanced up at me. “Yes sir, I’ll tell him.” She hung up the phone. “Mayor Domingue told me to tell you that he only has a few minutes to give you. He has a meeting at four. His office is right through that door.” She pointed out an office door with a manicured finger.
“Thank you,” I said and knocked on the mayor’s door.
“Come in,” he shouted out. I walked in.
Fred Domingue was a short stocky man with a comb over. His dark eyes were small and recessed deep into their sockets. He had thin lips under a fair sized nose. When I walked in, he looked up from a sheet of paper on his desk. We knew each other slightly from my days with the Sheriff’s Department.
“John,” he said and stood. He stuck his hand out and I shook it. “How’s the detective business? Can’t be too much happening in our little community.”
“There’s enough to keep me busy, Fred.”
He sat back down, and I sat in the straight-backed chair across from him.
“My secretary tells me you want to ask me a few questions about a student of yours.”
“That’s right, Fred. My student disappeared from the Gumbo Shack three days ago.”
“What do you mean, disappeared?”
“He was there one moment talking to me on the telephone. Then a pickup truck just like yours drove up. A guy in a Saints baseball cap jumped out and threw my student into the pickup and drove off.”
“Are you accusing me of kidnapping your student?”
“No. I honestly don’t think you would do that, but the truck was the same kind and the same color as yours.”
“There must be ten or twenty pickups like mine in Ellisonville, John. Maybe more.”
“Yeah, you’re right, Fred? This one sported a vanity license with a cartoon character pissing on a Ford.”
“Well, there you go.”
“You never had a vanity license like that on yours, did you?”
“I don’t know what the hell you’re trying to imply, John, but I don’t appreciate it at all. I’m the mayor of this city. I have a certain amount of power at my disposal. I can make trouble for a private detective who sticks his nose where it isn’t wanted.”
I stood up.
“I’ll tell you what, Fred. If I’m barking up the wrong tree, I will personally come here and apologize.” I started to walk out, but stopped. “But I don’t think I’m wrong, Fred. I think you’re deep into something, and it’s starting to stink.” I walked out. If Fred was guilty of something, I had said enough to rile him into action. If not, I had said enough for him to make some big trouble for me.
The secretary fiddled with that top button again, and this time I noticed it was unbuttoned. I also noticed she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring.
“Have you finished your business with the mayor, Mr. LeGrand?”
“Yes, I have,” I said and walked up to her desk. “How come I don’t see you around town?” I asked. Secretaries always knew a lot more than most people gave them credit for knowing.
“I don’t go out much. I guess I’m a home body.”
I gave her my best smile.
“Have you ever eaten at Ally’s?” Ally’s Restaurant was on the edge of town and served up some of the best food in Louisiana.
“I went there once, but I didn’t have much fun. The guy who took me got drunk and almost got us kick out.”
“You ought to go there with a real gentleman.”
“Who would that be?” I saw the playfulness in her eyes, and I knew she would go with me.
“Why me, of course. How about tonight? I pick you up around seven thirty, and I’ll treat you to the best that Ally has to offer. And if you’re afraid I’ll get drunk, forget it. I don’t drink.”
“How should I dress?” She asked.
“To the nines, Honey. To the nines. Say, what’s your name?”
“Constance Olivier, but my friends call me Connie.”
“Well, Connie. I need to know where you live, so I can pick you up.”
She gave me her home address, and I left. I was sure I would get information off her.
Pat called me as soon as I walked into my house.
“John, I need you to come with me.”
“I got a date tonight, Pat. I can’t play tennis right now.”
“I’ll be by to pick you up in about two minutes. I’m on my way now. We responded to an explosion just north of the town. They found a body buried in a pasture behind the trailer. From the descriptions you gave me, it might be your boy.”
“I’ll be waiting for you.”
Pat pulled up just as I ran out the front door.
“What caused the explosion?”
“It’s a crack house. I guess I should say it was a crack house. That stuff is extremely flammable. I guess a fire started, and the fools had several butane canisters in the trailer. Kaboom. Killed two adult males, a woman, and a little girl around three or four.”
“Damn. That stinks when the innocent get caught up in these things. Where does the buried body come into it?”
“Don’t know, yet. I suspect he was involved in the crack production somehow and was killed for some reason or another. It’s hard to tell with crack heads. They’re an awful paranoid lot and mix that in with guns and criminal minds and you have a deadly combination.”
I kept quiet as Pat drove through town, took a blacktop north and turned onto a graveled road. We traveled about two miles along this road lined with dusty blackberry bushes, barbed wire fences and soybean fields. He took a right onto a rutted dirt lane and pulled into a front yard. He stopped next to a fire truck and a state police sauntered up to Pat’s SUV.
The smell of smoke was thick in the air. The trailer, what had once been a trailer, was only a smoldering shell now. Pink insulation lay all over the yard and in the singed cottonwood in the back yard. Smoldering furniture was scattered all over the back yard and the front yard. Pat rolled down his window and waited for the cop.
“Willy,” Pat said once the cop was near enough. “Anything new?”
“The coroner is with them now.” He nodded toward a group of vehicles near a copse of trees about fifty yards away.
“Not yet. He’s a John Doe. Probably one of the bad ones trying to strike out on his own.”
“Okay, I’m headed back there.” Pat put the SUV in gear, and we bounced our way to the site. He parked next to a state trooper, and we climbed out of the SUV. When we reached the group of people, Pat addressed the coroner, a short pudgy woman with dark curly hair. She wore rubber gloves and was just removing them when Pat walked up to her.
“Glema,” he said. “What we got here?”
“A boy really—about eighteen or nineteen, maybe older. Don’t know yet. Hands bound at the back by twine. A bullet to the back of his head. No id what-so-ever. Unless you know who he is, we’ll have to classify him a john doe.”
“Mind if my friend here has a look. He’s got a missing student, and from the preliminary descriptions, it might be the kid.”
“He can look. It isn’t pretty. They worked him up real good before they shot him.”
Pat shook his head and motioned me over. The body was in a zippered bag. The coroner leaned over and pulled the zipper back, and I saw Noah’s battered face—his blank eyes staring lifelessly back at me.
“Shit,” I said and broke away from the group. I threw up everything I had in my stomach and searched for more to get rid of. Pat came over and patted me on the back.
“I’m guessing that’s him.”
“Damn, Pat. I barely recognize him, but it is him. I can’t imagine how frightened he must have been waiting for that bullet.” I dry heaved some more. “What, they had him kneel before them, and they put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger after they had their fun. What kind of people would do a thing like that, Pat? He was just a kid.”
“Listen, I got to talk to the coroner for a minute. Are you okay?”
“I’ll never be okay again, Pat. Never.”
I watched as Pat peppered the coroner with questions gesturing occasionally at the body bag on the gurney next to them. After a few minutes, he nodded and returned to me.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said, and we climbed into the SUV. After we’d gone a few miles, he turned to me, “You pulled a piece of paper from his house, didn’t you?”
“Yeah,” I said and reached back for my wallet. I pulled the paper out and opened it. I handed it to Pat. He glanced at it.
“NO QUARTERS. Any idea what it means?”
I shook my head.
“None. It could as simple as him not having quarters.
“But why on earth would he write it out on a note like that? And so carefully?”
“I don’t know, Pat. And I don’t really care, right now. I need a drink, and I need it bad. No, make that a bottle.”
“The last thing you need is booze, John. I’ll be damned if I’ll let you bury yourself in that stuff, again, after spending all that time and effort digging you out of it.”
“Try to stop me, Pat.”
“Is that a dare?”
“It’s a damn double dare.”
“We’re stopping at your house. You’ll put on some jogging shorts and loan me a pair and we’re going jogging. If you want to drink after that, I’ll even buy you a bottle.”
We did just that. We took off from my house and jogged five miles to the city park. There I took off running around the track. I could hear Pat huffing and puffing behind me, but I didn’t let up. With each stride, I was erasing the image of Noah’s face, the vacant eyes, the battered nose and cheeks, the hole in the back of his head where the bullet entered. With each stride, I was trying to squash down the person or persons who did this to Noah. I ran five more miles before I stopped. Pat had long stopped and sat at a picnic table waiting for me.
“Had enough?” He said when I neared him.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s run home.”
He looked at me as if I was crazy, but struggled up and followed me. But this time I took it easy on him. I let him catch up to me.
“Thanks, Pat,” I said.
“If I’d known you were going to run me half to death, I wouldn’t have suggested it, John.”
He coughed, but I could tell he was pleased.
“Pat, I think Fred Domingue is involved in all this.”
Pat grabbed my arm and stopped me.
“The guy at the Gumbo Shack said that the guys who kidnapped Noah drove a red extended cab pickup. Fred drives a red extended cab pickup.”
“So what? There must be at least twenty or thirty red extended cab pickups in Ellisonville. Hell, maybe forty or fifty.”
“Maybe. But when I confronted Fred with it, he seemed awfully nervous.”
“You accused the mayor of kidnapping?”
“You and I both know the guy is a sleaze. Even as Chief of Police, he operated more out of the law than in it.”
“Yeah, but you accusing him of kidnapping and maybe even murder.”
“I’m not saying he drove the pickup or pulled the trigger, but he’s behind it. I feel it.”
“That’s not good enough, John. You’ll have to get evidence.
“I’ve got a date with his secretary tonight. She might let something slip.”
I took off running again.
“Wait a minute,” Pat yelled behind me. “You got a date with Fred’s secretary? How’d you manage that?”
I turned around and ran backwards until he caught up with me.
“Good looks and charm, Pat. Something you don’t know anything about.”
“I’m half dead, but it’s good to have you back again.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever be back again, Pat.”
I don’t think Connie was very impressed with the chariot I picked her up in. She took one look at my Dodge Ram Van and frowned. She was dressed way too fancy for my chariot, but it was all I had. I opened the passenger door for her, and helped her in. The van was high off the ground, which was one of the reasons I liked to drive it. It felt almost like I was driving a big truck. She gathered her skirt around her, afraid to get it dirty on the floorboard. I climbed in the driver’s side, and the van started after only two tries. It was going to be a good night.
I pulled into Ally’s parking lot. The restaurant was a reconverted barn that she had skillfully turned into a restaurant. Everybody knew Ally’s. People came from as far away as Texas and further just to spend an evening sampling Ally’s wonderful cooking. The waitress asked if I had a reservation. I said, yes, and she led us to a table. Before we were seated, Ally came wheeling at us in her wheel chair.
“John, it’s so nice to see you again.”
I leaned over and gave her a kiss.
“How’s that husband of yours?” I asked.
“You would know better than me. Between my job here and his job teaching at EJC, you see him more than I do.” Pete LaSache Jr. had been a deputy with the Ellison Parish Sheriff’s Department. One day, he turned in his badge, said he had enough, and applied for a job teaching history at EJC.
“Ally, this is Constance Olivier. Her friends call her Connie.” The two women shook hands.
“Just let me know if you need anything, John.”
“I will Ally.”
Part of my plan had been to get Connie drunk enough to loosen her tongue. In order to do that, I would have to drink a few drinks also. I was not an alcoholic. I was an emotional drinker. I drank to help me through emotional crisis. Thanks to Pat, I had dealt with most of the afternoon’s events through running.
“I thought you didn’t drink?”
“I make exceptions for special occasions. I’d say this is one of them.”
She smiled, and I motioned the waitress over.
“Do you have any champagne that doesn’t taste like watered down beer?”
“Yes sir. I have a very nice bottle, but it is a little expensive.”
The waitress nodded and left. I saw her talking to Ally.
“How long have you been working for Fred, Connie?”
“I started working in sanitation. I was secretary for Mr. Eliot. After he had that heart attack, they moved me to the pool where I did steno and substituted for secretaries when they went on vacation. One day, Mr. Domingue’s secretary just up and quit, and he sent down to the pool wanting a replacement. I got the job. He liked me, and I stayed on. I’ve been there for about six months.”
“Do you like it?”
The waitress arrived with the bottle of champagne in an ice bucket. She opened the bottle with a pop and poured two glassfuls. I touched my glass to Connie’s.
“Here’s to a lasting friendship.”
I took a drink. I knew it would hit me fast if I wasn’t careful. I made sure to take small sips. Connie had no such reservations. She took a big swallow and giggled as the bubbles tickled her nose.
“Do you like your job with Fred?”
“Uh, huh. There isn’t too much to do. I type letters, memos, and forms and do a little filing. Mostly, I deal with the public, you know, people wanting to talk to the mayor. Most of them are nice to me, even if they’re mad at the mayor.”
“Now and again one will walk in and be rude to me. He won’t tell me his name and demand to see the mayor. Of course, I call the mayor and tell him that, but he tells me to send the person in. I don’t know why he would want to talk to those kinds of people.”
“What did they look like?”
“There’s this one black kid. Comes in every now and then. Always wears a baseball cap, and the way he looks at me almost makes me feel like I’ve been raped.” She held her glass out, and I filled it. “Oh, I like it when men look at me, don’t get me wrong. It’s just the way he looks. It’s not complimentary at all.”
The waitress came for our orders. I ordered Ally’s famous blackened redfish. Connie ordered a shrimp dish.
“What’s his name?”
“He never gives me his name. He just walks in, looks me over, and tells me to let the mayor know he’s there. Mayor Domingue always sees him.”
“Do they stay together long.”
She pursed her lips.
“Half an hour—sometimes longer, but not much.”
She finished her drink, and I refilled her glass. I topped mine off.
“I have to go to the little girls’ room,” she said and stood. I stood along with her, and she smiled at me. “That’s the first time a man ever did that for me,” she said and left for the restroom.
Ally wheeled herself to my table.
“Are you trying to get her drunk?”
“Pretty observant for a restraunteer. I need to get some information out of her, Ally.”
“Yeah. A non-paying one, and that bottle of champagne is not going to help my financial situation at all.”
“There are cheaper ways to get a girl drunk, you know.”
“Yeah, I know, but I was feeling kind of guilty.”
“Because you’re using her?”
“Uh, huh. It’s for an important cause.”
“But she’s still being used.”
“A student of mine was killed today, and I think this woman knows a few things about the person who did it.”
“Is she involved?”
“Only as an innocent bystander, I believe.”
“Here she comes. Maybe I can help.”
Connie returned to the table and gave Ally a hello.
“Connie,” Ally said. “Do you like margaritas? I just came by to offer you and John a pitcher of margaritas on the house. A customer ordered a pitcher and had to leave, so what do you say.”
“Oh, I love margaritas, John? Could we?”
“Sure,” I said. “Thanks Ally.”
The food and the margaritas arrived at the same time. I ate my fish before I started on a margarita. Connie started on the margaritas before she began her shrimp dish. It didn’t take long before she started slurring her words.
“So what does Fred do with his time all day?”
“Why are you asking me so many questions about my boss?”
“I’m just trying to make small talk. I haven’t been on a date for a while.”
“Sorry,” she said, waving her hand between us. “I guess I’m a little insecure. I have trouble believing that men like me for who I am. I’m always looking for some kind of ulterior motive.” She giggled. “I heard that in a movie once, ulterior motive.”
“It is.” She frowned creasing her brows. “Fred does what he wants all day long. He handles the town stuff pretty quick, you know. After that, he makes these phone calls.”
“Oh, he never lets me dial the numbers, ever. Never lets me listen in either. He says it very very private.”
“Do you have any clues?”
She grinned. Looked around to see if anyone was listening.
“I listened in by accident one time. He was talking to a state cop. Something about a raid in Ellisonville. I hung up right away.”
“What kind of raid?”
“I didn’t hear. I was too scared to lose my job.”
“Connie, did the mayor ever say anything in front of you about crack houses or crack cocaine?”
“No. Not in front of me.”
“But you did hear him say something?”
“He was talking to the guy in the baseball cap, he yelled it, loud enough for me to hear through the door, ‘You take care of things, the boy, the crack houses, everything.’”
“Are you sure that’s what he said? Could you swear to it?”
“Oh, no. I could never swear to it, John, but I’m pretty sure that’s what I heard.”
She reached for another margarita. I pulled the pitcher away from her.
“I think you’ve had enough young lady. I better take you home.”
I called the waitress over and squared the bill. With the bottle of champagne and the meal, I ended up shelling out ninety-three dollars, a huge chunk of the little money I had left over from the last case. I drove Connie home and helped her into her apartment. I knew she wanted me to stay the evening, but I was not interested in her that way. In a severe attack of my conscience, I almost gave in, but something, a tiny voice of reason, told me that the wrong thing would be to stay. I would do more harm that way, so I helped her into bed, kissed her on the cheek, and left quietly through the front door.
Pat called me early the next morning.
“Were you asleep?”
I checked the digital clock next to my bed, seven fifteen.
“It’s seven o’clock in the morning. Who wouldn’t be asleep? Wait, I know the answer to that one, you.”
“I’ve got something important to tell you. I really shouldn’t be telling you any of this, and you can’t repeat it to anybody.”
“What in the hell are you talking about, Pat? And would you hurry, so I can go back to sleep?”
“Your boy was not involved with crack cocaine, at least not as a criminal.”
I sat up in bed.
“What are you talking about?”
“Your student. Remember I said he was a non-entity, that he didn’t have any records?”
“There’s a reason for that. He’s BOI.”
“For Christ’s sake, Pat. Make sense. What’s a BOI?”
“Bureau of Investigations, BOI. Your boy was an undercover cop. It seems the BOI suspected someone in the Mounties.” Pat’s name for the state police. “This person was giving away information about crack house raids in the Ellison Parish area, so they sent your boy in to do some undercover snooping. I guess the bad guys got wise to him. He’s no seventeen-year-old. Word I got is he’s twenty-four-years old. He was no nerd either.”
I nearly jumped out of bed.
“Something Fred’s secretary told me last night.”
“Just a minute. Let me think. She overheard him talking to a state cop. They were discussing a raid in Ellisonville.”
“Will she swear to that?”
“No. Probably not. She only got snippets here and there. Fred was pretty careful. Check on his other secretary. She quit pretty suddenly. Maybe she quit for a reason.”
“I’ll check it out. Anything else?”
“Why was he taking my class, Pat?” Then it hit me like a hammer. “Mustafa. He was shadowing Mustafa.”
“The black kid in my class. Connie mentioned that this kid would come in to the Mayor’s office now and again. That was Mustafa.”
“Why was he in your class?”
“Hell, who knows? Maybe he wanted to learn cop strategy. I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure that’s why Noah was in my class.”
“Sounds like a crazy TV movie, John.”
“Maybe, but it’s the only thing that makes sense.” I paused for a while. “Listen, I’ve got an eleven o’clock class, Noah’s class. I’m not looking forward to it. Afterward, I want to have a word with Fred.”
“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea, John. Let the law handle this one.”
“All right. Arrest him before I get there, I’ll let you have him.”
I hung up.
I stopped at Steve’s Gas and Goodies on my way to the college for my class. Steve was behind the counter.
“I saw your advertisement in the Rusti Nikel. Looks good. I especially like how you don’t use a phone number. You use the alphabet instead. That’s pretty smart, you know. I bet you could use that like a code. Like they do in spy movies. You know, you write something, and each alphabet stands for a number. Hell, you could send all kinds of secret messages, you know.”
“That’s it. It’s a number.” I reached over the counter and shook Steve’s hand. “You’re a genius, Steve. A genius. Can I use your phone?”
“Sure,” he said. “Uh, what am I a genius for?”
I dialed Pat’s number.
“Pat,” I said when he answered. “The NO QUARTERS is a number.”
“That piece of paper is a number.” I looked at the phone I was holding. “667-827-8377.”
“Okay, it’s a number. What good is that going to do me?”
“Hell, I don’t know. Why don’t you call it and see who answers?”
“Sometimes, Pat, I think you have no imagination. It’ll at least give you a connection between Noah and whoever is on the other end. Right?”
“Alright I’ll check out the number. Oh, about the secretary. She died in a car wreck three weeks ago.”
“According to the Mounties, it was a legit accident. Drunk driving on the Serpentville road.”
Can I make one more call, Steve?
“Sure. Hey, what am I a genius for?”
I dialed the number I’d given Pat.
“Hello,” a voice on the other end said.
I recognized Fred’s voice immediately. Everything was pointing his way.
“Hello,” he said again. “Who is this?”
“Wrong number,” I said and hung up.
I spent sixty minutes with my students. We didn’t discuss class work at all. Instead, we talked about Noah and remembered some of the things he did that we admired, and some of the things he did that irritated us or made us laugh. I found it interesting to see that Mustafa Jones was not in class.
I had a message on my school phone from Pat.
“We picked up that Mustafa Jones guy you told us about. The guy at the Gumbo Shack has identified him as one of the guys who kidnapped your boy. He hasn’t talked yet, but he will. When he starts looking at life or worse, his tongue will loosen. Meanwhile, stay away from Fred. Let us get the goods on him from this Mustafa guy first.”
I liked Pat, and I owed him my life, but I owed this to Noah. I drove straight to City Hall. Connie smiled when I walked in through the mayor’s door.
“John,” she said. “About the other night. I’m so sorry I drank so much. I had no idea I was getting so drunk.”
“Forget about it, Connie. Listen,” I said. “You need to pack up everything that belongs to you and walk out of here. Don’t look back.”
She looked at me as if I was crazy.
“Because your boss is involved in some very serious things, including possibly murder. I don’t want you caught up in all of this. Go home. Take a trip. Get out of town. Quick.”
I left her gathering all the personal things a secretary collects in an office. I walked to Fred’s door and barged in. I walked straight to his desk and slammed the drawer he’d been trying to open, shut. I missed his fingers by inches.
“What the hell is this about, LeGrand. I’ll have you arrested for this.”
“You’ll have a hard time doing that from behind bars, Fred. Let’s see, murder should keep you locked up for a good while. Oh wait, you’re an ex-cop. Slim chance of survival if the other prisoners find out and you can bet they will find out.”
“What are you talking about? I’m not going to jail. I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“You haven’t done anything right, Fred. You got involved in the crack cocaine business. You’ve been warning the druggies about upcoming state police raids. You ordered the kidnapping and the murder of an undercover agent. By the time the BOI gets done with you, you’ll be lucky if you don’t fry. Wait, maybe you’ll be luckier if you do fry considering the way you’ll be treated in prison.”
I slipped on a pair of latex gloves and opened the desk drawer. I pulled out the revolver he had reached for.
“Well, look at this.”
“I was going to use that as protection. I have a permit for it.”
“I’m sure you do, Mayor.” I pointed the pistol at him. “Turn around,” I said.
“What are you doing, LeGrand? You’re the one who’s going to go to prison.”
“I said turn around.” He did as he I told him. I pulled out a piece of twine I’d brought with me and tied his wrists. I slipped two bullets out of the chamber and laid them on the desktop. I placed the gun barrel against the back of his head.
“LeGrand, what the hell are you doing? This is murder.”
“You damn right it is. That boy you ordered killed was a student of mine. I don’t like people like you messing with my students.”
“I didn’t kill him.”
“You didn’t pull the trigger, but you killed him alright. How in the hell do you sleep at night? Do you imagine what must have gone through that poor kid’s head? What must it have been like waiting for that bullet to enter his skull? Maybe your guys were laughing, making shooting noises, laughing every time he flinched? Get out of that chair and kneel, you son of a bitch.”
“Listen, LeGrand. I got lots of money. I’ll give you whatever you want if you’ll just let me go.”
“Kneel, I said. I don’t want your damn dirty money—money you made selling poisons to young kids. Kneel.” I shoved him and he fell to his knees. I placed the muzzle against the back of his head again. “Hey, Fred. Do you think the boy heard the click before the bullet fired into his head?” I pulled the trigger and the hammer fell on the empty chamber. There was a loud click in the silence. Fred’s body jerked forward and for a moment, I thought I had actually fired a bullet into his head. Then I realized he had expected the bullet, and his body had reacted the way it thought it should. I looked down and watched as urine darkened his khaki pants. “You’re pissing yourself Fred. Do you think the kid pissed himself, too? Do you think your guys laughed at him for pissing himself?” Fred didn’t answer. He lay with his forehead against the floor. I could tell he was crying from the shaking of his shoulders.
“Get back on your kneels, Fred. We’re not done yet.” He picked himself up.
“Please, LeGrand. Please.”
“Turn around.” I placed the muzzle against his head and pulled the trigger again. “This time he flinched, but he did not jerk forward. I untied the twine. He pulled his hands in front of him. I unloaded all the bullets except one and placed the pistol on the desktop.
“I’m leaving, Fred. Just like Barney Fife, the pistol has one bullet. If I were you, I’d use it to blow a hole in that evil head of yours. We got Mustafa, and he’s going to talk his head off. You know it. And you’re going to go to prison or the chair. Either one and you’re dead. A bullet would end all your suffering. Goodbye, Fred. I hope you rot in hell.”
I walked out of his office. I met Pat and the state cops at the secretary’s desk. Pat shook his head and started to say something, but the single gunshot stopped him.
“What happened?” Pat yelled at me.
“I think he just met the devil, Pat.”
The police picked up Connie on a Greyhound bus headed to Alexandria. They brought her back, but there was very little she could tell them, and before long, she was on a different bus but headed in the same direction. Mustafa squealed like a pig. Fred Domingue was the boss. He gave them the times and places for raids. He found out about Noah and ordered his kidnap and murder. Fred’s operation had been going on for years with an informant in the BOI—that’s how he found out about the raids and that Noah was actually an undercover BOI agent. Turns out, he was a young-looking twenty-four-year-old.
It took me a long time to stop worrying about my students. I stopped assigning the investigation assignment. I was just too worried that something might go wrong again.
Pat came over for an “Andy Griffith Show” marathon on one of the cable channel. I told him to bring over a six-pack of beer, and we drank beer and watch Barney’s shenanigans. One bullet, that’s all he had and Barney, the good lawman versus the evil guys, didn’t need any more than that. Barney gave no quarters.
Jude Roy has published widely in print and online sources, including The Southern Review, American Short Fiction, National Public Radio, Prism International, Zuzu’s Petal Quarterly, A Writer’s Choice Literary Journal, The Journal of Kentucky Studies, and numerous others. he was born and raised in Chatagnier, Louisiana and is personally acquainted with his setting. He studied writing under Ernest Gaines, Richard Bausch and Alan Cheuse.