She is a looker—long blond hair, deep blue eyes, bumps in all the right places, and a smile that could wake the dead. She drags me to the dance floor and sways in front of me, like an Amazon seductress. Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” plays in the background. She raises her arms, opens them, and invites me to enter. I sing along with the song as I step into her arms.
“But my eyes are not brown,” she says, her voice soft as an angel.
“Tonight,” I say. “They’re brown.”
That’s when the image of Vera, my ex-wife, appears in her stead.
“What the hell are you doing,” she shrieks.
“Trying to get some,” I shriek back. “Now get lost.”
But it was too late. I woke up to my cellphone ringtone piping out “Brown Eyed Girl.” I checked the time: seven a.m.
“What?” I growled into the phone.
“Good morning.” It was Pat, my friend and the Ellison Parish Sheriff.
“It was good until you and Vera screwed it up.”
“Vera? Don’t tell me she’s trying to reach you.”
“She turned a perfectly wonderful dream into a nightmare. That’s what she’s doing, and you’re turning my nightmare into a waking nightmare. What the hell do you want?”
“Two things. Do you know a good roofer?”
I glanced out of my bedroom window. It was pouring rain outside.
“Let me sleep on it.”
“I don’t have time for that. My damn roof is leaking like a sieve. My kitchen is flooded, and the ceiling looks like a hurricane hit it. Did you know that sheet rock melts when mixed with water?” I grinned. For a big tough cop, sometimes Pat could be so helpless.
“Fuselier Siding and Roofing on Cottonwood. They do a good job, and they’re honest. I did a job for Jake a while back.”
“Thanks. I’ll call him right away.”
“Wait. What was the other thing? I’m awake now, so I might as well listen.”
“I’m working on a case, and I can’t seem to solve it. I thought if you weren’t busy, you might have a look at it.”
He was right about me not being busy. I had just finished a case in Boston, Massachusetts and was compensated mightily for completing it. I was financially fat and happy at the moment and not looking for new work. Of course, I also happened to be bored out of my skull, so I encouraged Pat to tell me about his case.
“It’s a chicken stealing case. Somebody is going around from farm to farm stealing chickens and scratching saut crapaud in the chicken yard.”
“You’re BS’ing me, aren’t you.”
“Swear to God. Cross my heart, John. The guy’s stolen over ten chickens so far.”
“How many does he steal from each farm then?”
“One or two.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me?”
“Uh, uh. He’s stolen from five farms so far and stole from the sixth last night. In fact, I’m going out to the farm as soon as I call the roofer. Want to come along?”
“You damn right I do. I wouldn’t miss this for the world. I need a good laugh.”
“I’ll pick you up in about half an hour.”
The rain came down in sheets. It would slack off for a few seconds. Then it would rain so hard that Pat’s windshield wipers could not keep up. I don’t know how he managed to see the road.
“You’d think there was a hurricane going on out there,” Pat said during one of the slack periods.
“So why is it so all fire important that we visit this guy right now?”
“Shorty Fontenot is a voter, John. My job depends on the kindness of the parish voters. Shorty wanted someone to come see where he lost his chickens. I tend to oblige, rain or not.”
“Why couldn’t you have sent one of your minions?”
“Listen to you using those big words. You must think that you’re a high class teacher at the college.” I taught part time at Ellisonville Junior College. I taught an introductory Criminal Justice course. Pat was the one that got me the job after I drank myself out of a job with the Ellison Parish Sheriff’s Department, thanks to Vera’s sudden disappearance.
“If you think minion is a big word, it’ll take more than Shorty Fontenot to keep your job.”
“I couldn’t send one of my minions, as you call them, because Shorty asked for me.”
“Is Shorty really that important?”
“All voters are important. Shorty just happens to be chair of the Ellison Parish Farmers’ Cooperative. In these parts, that spells influence.”
Shorty Fontenot’s farm was about halfway down the Bayou des Sauvages gravel road, a fifteen-mile stretch of graveled road that tee’d into one of those blacktop roads that started somewhere and ended somewhere else, and nobody seemed to know where. The gravel was thick; the parish had just resurfaced it. Drainage ditches, blackberry bushes, barbed wire fences, and fallowed cotton and soybean fields, mostly underwater during this downpour, lined both sides of the road. There were occasional breaks in the barbed wire where cattle-guarded lanes led to farms set off from the graveled road.
The drainage ditches were filled to overflow, and angry brown water—covering the road in some places—rushed madly toward Bayou des Sauvages. About a mile after the Bayou des Sauvages Bridge, Pat turned into one of those lanes, and after a while, we skidded to a muddy halt next to a white picket fence. A dog ran up to us and gave us a few reluctant barks before racing back to a carport where it was dry. Shorty Fontenot, holding an Ellison Parish Bank umbrella, opened the picket fence gate and waved us over. I pulled up the collar on my raincoat and stepped out into the downpour. It took exactly three seconds before I felt the rain pour off my head, down my collar, over my back and into the back of my pants.
Shorty was true to his name. He was short, compact, and had one of the biggest noses I had ever seen. The thing was bulbous, with opened pores. He wore khaki pants and a dark blue sweatshirt. He had on a Red Man Chewing Tobacco cap tilted slightly to the right.
He held the umbrella up for Pat to stand under. There was not enough room for me, so I stood off to the side and was miserable.
“Thanks for coming in this weather, Sheriff,” Shorty said in Cajun.
“Not a problem, Shorty.” Both men had to talk louder than usual because of the rain beating on the umbrella. “Let’s go to the scene of the crime, Shorty. Maybe we can find somewhere to get out of this downpour.” He glanced at me and grinned sheepishly.
Shorty led us through the picket fence gate, through a back yard with two enormous fig trees, and into a muddy barnyard. We sloshed through the mud and manure and made our way to the barn. The rain was loud on the tin roof, and we had to shout even louder to make ourselves heard.
“That’s the chicken coop out there,” Shorty yelled and pointed to a section of the barnyard fenced in with chicken wire. A weathered shed with a rusted tin roof sat to the back of the fenced-in area. There were no chickens in sight, of course. Even chickens were smart enough to stay out of the rain. “When I got up and checked on the chickens, I found that gate there wide open. I thought for sure someone had stolen all my chickens, but I was only missing two of them. Whoever stole them scratched out Saut Crapaud in the dust, probably with his shoe. You can’t see it now, of course, ’cause of all the rain, but I took a picture of it. The woman gave me one of those digital cameras for Christmas, and I took a picture of it. I printed it out. I’ll give it to you on our way back to your SUV.”
“Did you hear anything last night, Shorty—you know, like chicken squawking or anything like that?” Pat asked.
“That’s the hell of it all. I didn’t hear a damn thing. Usually those chickens make the most god-awful noise if any animal comes around the coop while they’re sleeping, but they’re pretty used to people coming and going. This guy didn’t make one of them squeak, even.”
“What time you go to bed, Shorty?”
“Usually, the woman and I are in bed by nine o’clock. I generally fall asleep right away. She stays awake a little longer, watching the TV in the bedroom.”
“Did she hear anything?”
“Not a sound, Sheriff.”
“Then the crime must have occurred between nine o’clock last night and the time you fed your chickens.”
“I usually feed them about five thirty or so.”
“Between nine o’clock last night and five thirty this morning.”
“Isn’t it still dark at five thirty in the morning?” I broke in.
“Tonnere, I forgot you were here, you’re so quiet. Yeah, it doesn’t get light ’til six fifteen or so.”
“How’d you see the writing on the ground, if it was dark?”
“I carry a flashlight.”
“Can’t the chickens wait to be fed until it turns light?”
Shorty ignored me. Apparently, the chickens had no say in the matter, or it was a stupid question.
There was little else to consider, so we headed out into the rain again. When we reached the house, Shorty went inside and came out with a picture. Pat glanced at it a few seconds before handing it to me. Sure enough, someone had scratched saut crapaud into the dust with a foot or something. I handed the picture back to Pat, and we climbed into his SUV.
“Thank you for coming in all this rain, Pat. I know it’s only a couple of chickens, not worth much, but it just gets my goat when somebody takes something that don’t belong to them.”
“Yeah, me too, Shorty. I’ll catch the chicken thief, and make him pay.”
He started the SUV and we sloshed up the lane to the road.
“This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen, Pat,” I said after a few moments of silence. “Why steal only two chickens and leave a stupid message like that, when you could steal a whole henhouse and not leave any clues?”
“Do you know the song, John?”
“Every Cajun kid worth his salt knows ‘Saut Crapud,’ but what does a kid’s ditty about jump frog have to do with stealing chickens?”
“You got me.”
“Have you looked for a pattern—you know, like every other farm or something?”
“Yap. Guy jumps around like a frog.” I groaned, and Pat smiled pleased with his attempt at humor. “Completely random. North, South, East, West. The crime scenes follow no pattern that I can tell.” He reached over and popped open his glove box and pulled out a parish map. He handed it to me. “They’re all on there with the dates—all except Shorty’s.” Pat was right. There didn’t seem to be any pattern.
“Mind if I keep this for a little while. I’d like to study it.”
“Go ahead. I got another one just like it in the office.”
“Alright, let’s say, there’s no pattern. He had to do something with all those chickens, doesn’t he? Have you checked out stores, or chicken farms, or any other place that might buy live or cleaned chickens?”
“Yap, did that. Nobody’s admitting it if they are.”
“So what else could he be doing with those chickens?”
“Keeping them for himself?”
“Yeah, that’s possible. Maybe he wants to start a chicken farm and doesn’t have the capital to buy the chickens, but wouldn’t he steal more than two chickens each time? Maybe he owns a restaurant and is using the chickens for food—a fried chicken place maybe? Any restaurants in the area called Saut Crapaud or Crapaud—maybe they sell fried chicken and fried frog legs.”
Pat looked at me as if I was crazy.
“Alright, I’m grasping, but that’s all there is right now.”
“No fried chicken or fried frog legs places by that name in this area. I even went as far as sending people to all the restaurants. No red flags.”
“Well, this certainly leaves me scratching my head.”
“Me too,” Pat echoed.
The rain had slowed down to a drizzle, but the water in the ditches still raged, and there was still water over the road in some places, so Pat drove slowly.
“Let’s say we can’t figure out what he’s doing with the chickens right now. Let’s leave it behind us for a minute. Why scratch that message in the dirt? That’s just bizarre.”
“Ain’t it though?”
“Jump frog. Leap frog. What is it? The frog loses his tail, but it grows back. Wow, Pat, I never thought about it, but that’s pretty stupid.”
“Tadpoles have tails.”
“I guess technically they’re baby frogs, but do their tails grow back once they lose them. Listen to us. We’re debating tadpoles and frogs, and it’s not telling us anything about our chicken thief.”
We drove in silence for a while. Just before we reached my house, I turned to Pat.
“Let me know if this guy strikes again.”
“Got you hooked, huh?”
“Hook line and sinker, Pat. It makes no sense at all.”
“You know it could be something real simple.”
“Yeah, I know, and it’s killing me that I don’t know.”
It rained for a week straight—one of those cold wintry drizzles that soaked everything from ground on up. The chicken stealer didn’t like the rain either because he had not struck in a week. Or maybe it was as simple as him not being able to scratch his message in the dust. Pat came over on a Saturday, and we sat down to a marathon of “Andy Griffith” shows on one of the cable channels and a couple of beers. Barney was wooing one of the Mayberry girls, and it reminded me of the first time Vera and I dated. Pat had sent me to the feed and seed store when it was next to the Courthouse Café. She worked at the Courthouse Café and came in for some food for her cat. When I saw her, I was unable to look away. Vera was not your typical Cajun girl; she had the dark curly hair and the brown eyes, but her skin was ivory white as if she had never seen the sun. She was tall, nearly as tall as I was. I was just over six feet; she had to be five ten or five eleven. She wore a bright red lipstick that stood out dramatically against her white skin. She filled out her jeans and tee shirt beautifully. I figured there was no way that she would even look at me, but I knew I had to try.
“Hello,” I told her. Nothing like starting with something brilliant.
“Hello, Officer,” she said in a voice that was slightly nasal and husky.
I decided to lean against a stack of dog food bags. The top one slipped off, and I went along with it, over the stack and flat on the floor. I jumped up, red with embarrassment. She smiled, but I could tell she was choking back a laugh.
“Say hello to Barney Fife, ma’am. If you trust me to drive, would you like to go to dinner some evening?”
“I don’t know, Deputy. You look dangerous to me.”
“I swear I’ll be on my best behavior. I won’t fall more than three times.”
“In that case,” she said to my delight. “I will.”
“My name’s John LeGrand,” I said.
“Mine is Vera Clyde.” We shook. Her hand was smooth and cold to the touch. “I just started working next door. Drop in sometime, and we’ll set a date.”
“I’ll be there as soon as I finish here,” I said, and bent down to pick up the bag of dog food. She walked up to the counter ordered her cat food. I dropped the bag onto the stack. It slipped and fell to floor again. She turned and laughed at me. I smiled and lifted the bag from the floor again.
Pat was staring at me instead of the television.
“What world were you in. I called your name at least twice, and you didn’t even hear me.”
“Sorry. I was just thinking about Vera. I had another nightmare about her last night.”
Pat sipped from his beer.
“Can’t get rid of her, huh?”
“It’s the not knowing, Pat. I can’t stand not knowing why she left.”
“Didn’t she leave you a note?”
She had left me a note—the top ten things she didn’t like about living with me, more late-night TV than “Dear John.”
“I know, but it really wasn’t edifying.”
Pat glanced at me open mouthed.
“I’m trying to build up my vocabulary, and I have to use the words in order to remember them. My students call me Professor LeGrand. I figured it would be a good idea to talk like a professor.”
Pat shook his head.
“Sometimes, I worry about you, John.”
“Just leave me alone. I’m trying to improve myself. The topic at hand is Vera. Her disappearance is an enigma that has me perplexed.”
“Will you stop it? I can’t tell if you’re serious or not when you talk like that.”
“Okay, Pat. I’m over her, but I want to know what I did that was so bad to make her take off like she did. I thought we had a thing going, you know, a relationship like you and Melissa have going.”
Pat sipped on his beer and looked pensive. I’d known him long enough to recognize that he was coming to some kind of decision, so I shut up and let him work through it.
Vera left me six years before. She left a note that said she was tired of the trains that ran by my place, the late hours, the stress, the monotony, and the drudgery, but I suspected more. For over a year after she left, I looked at life from the bottom of a bottle. Pat rescued me—got me a job at the local college and helped me set up my detective business. I owed him everything. Hell, I owed him my life.
“If you knew where she was, what would you do, John?”
“I’d find out the real reason she left.”
I glanced at Pat.
“What are you getting at, Pat? My feelings for her have long since evaporated. It’s the not knowing that’s killing me. One minute we’re okay. The next, she’s gone. It would drive any man crazy. Even you, Mr. tough guy.”
“I know where she is, John.”
I sat up on the couch almost knocking my empty beer bottle over.
“California—a little town outside of Sacramento called Cielo. I tracked her down because if you didn’t straighten out, I was going to go get her and bring her back. You were killing yourself, and I wanted to show her what she was doing to you. I also hoped that seeing her would snap you out of the dumps. But you got better, so I gave up on the idea.”
He pulled out his cell phone and dialed.
“Ramona, go to my desk and get a phone number for me. Vera LeGrand.” He listened for a second or two. “It’s none of your business why I want John’s ex-wife’s phone number. Maybe I got a thing for her. Just go get it and give it to me.” Pat glanced at me and winked. He muted his phone. “Tomorrow everybody in Ellison Parish will think I ran off with Vera. You watch.” He unmuted the phone. “Go ahead. Give it to me.” He wrote down the number on my television listing and pushed it toward me. “Good luck, John. I hope I don’t have to pull you out of the gutter again,” he said and left.
Vera answered the phone on the fourth ring. I was surprised at how familiar her voice still was to me. It took me back.
“Yes. Who is it?”
“John? How on earth did you find me?”
“Pat located you.”
“John, I’m remarried now. I shouldn’t be talking to you.”
“Two or three questions, Vera, and you won’t hear from me again. Hang up and I’m coming over there.”
“All right, John. Ask your questions.”
“Why did you leave?”
“I’d had enough, John. Your police work. Your nights with the boys. The worrying about whether you were safe or not. I got sick of it all. And those damn trains—reminding me that there were other places out there away from that hick Louisiana town. I was sick and tired of Ellisonville, John. I met somebody else and he took me away. Brought me here. I’m happy now, John.”
“You could have told me all this in your note.”
“There wasn’t enough paper in the world to explain how I felt.”
“I’m sorry about that, Vera. But you never said a word to me.”
“You were never there, John, and when I did have you there to talk to, you were either drinking beer with your friends or watching an important football game or baseball game or whatever, or some damn emergency would come up, and you had to leave.”
“I’m sorry, Vera. I was always blaming you, all those years, and it turns out I was the one who screwed things up.”
“Don’t put all that weight on your shoulders, John. I was pretty young and thought marriage would be a Cinderella world. I had no clue.”
“I don’t know about you, Vera, but I’m glad I called. It sure makes you look a lot more human in my eyes.”
“I’m glad you called, too, but why did you? After all these years, it’s been, what, five years?”
“After so many years, why call me now?”
“You’ll laugh at this. Pat and I are working on a case. Some guy is stealing chickens and scratching Saud Crapaud in the dust as his calling card. That and you showed up in a dream I had.”
She laughed. That was always my favorite thing about her.
“Saud Crapaud, that little kid’s ditty?”
“Uh, huh. What’s so funny?”
“Remember that time you took me to a whorehouse because I’d never been to one before, and you thought everyone should experience a whorehouse at least once in their lives. You took me to one in the woods out around Lac Vert. Wasn’t it called Saud Crapaud.
“Damn. It sure was, Vera. There was a little sign right over the bar. You may have just provided us with the missing piece on this case.” I let a few moments of silence pass. “Vera?”
“I hope you have a happy life.”
“You too, John. And thank you for calling. It helped me resolve a few things, too. I was never happy with the way I left. I hope I didn’t hurt you too much.”
“Piece of cake. Goodbye, Vera.”
I hung up, and the phone rang immediately. It was Pat.
“Where the hell have you been? I’ve been trying to get in touch with you for the past fifteen minutes.”
“I was talking to Vera.”
“Oh, sorry, John. How did that go?”
“I wish I had done this, years ago. It went great. Answered a ton of questions preying on my mind.”
“That’s wonderful news, John. I’m happy for you.”
“Why were you trying so hard to reach me?”
“Oh yeah. Our frog guy struck again last night. He hit a farm just west of town—Willy Thibodeaux’s farm. Want to join me? I think we can get it done before we lose the sun.”
“Yeah. Listen Vera reminded me of something that might shed some light on all this.”
“Yeah? Tell me when you see me. We don’t have too much time. I’ll be there in under ten. Be ready.”
He hung up.
True to his word, Pat drove into my driveway eight minutes later. I jumped into his SUV, and we headed west.
“So what was it Vera reminded you of?”
“About a year after we were married, I took her to a whorehouse.”
“As a joke, I took her to a whorehouse—the one over there by Lac Vert. Over the bar was a little sign, which read Saud Crapaud. That was the name of the place.”
Pat nearly went off the road.
“You’re absolutely right. That area there is the unholy triangle.”
When the state took over the Lac Vert area and made it a state forest, a little triangle, no bigger than five acres or so, got lost. When it was finally found, nobody wanted it. Ellison parish said no. St Landry parish said no, and the state said no.
“He’s dead now,” Pat said. “But Ferdinand Bocco, recognized an opportunity and opened up a whorehouse there and made a pretty good business. At first, he was free to do what he wanted. He was in no man’s land. Nobody wanted to touch him. A few years ago, the governor, on his way to Ally’s for some good eating, happened to hear about the place and made a trip there. He was so disgusted that he vowed to close it down. He sent the mounties in”—Pat’s word for the state police—”and within a year the whorehouse was gone. That was about five or six years ago, I guess. Bocco was shot in a hunting accident about that time and Ricky Frugé took the building over and opened up a dancehall there. Every Friday, Saturday, and Wednesday, there’s a big dance there. They renamed the place. That’s why I didn’t remember it. Ricky calls it The Dead End Dancehall. The place is always packed, and Ricky is making money hand over foot. The Ellisonville Playboys play there on Saturday nights. They got this eighteen year old kid from Chicot who plays the accordion on Friday nights. They say he can squeeze that box better than anybody alive or dead can. On Wednesday nights, Socko Robichaux and his Cajun Kings from Lafayette make the trip down.”
“How come you know so much about the place?”
“I had to back up the mounties on a couple of occasions. They have some hellascious fights there sometimes. There’s very little police oversight.”
“Why didn’t anybody want the triangle, Pat?”
“That’s the funny part. The state didn’t want it because they would have to admit they made a mistake. St. Landry didn’t want it because only the tiniest tip of the triangle touches their boundary. The figured it was more trouble than it was worth. Ellison Parish didn’t want it because it is surrounded mostly by state forest. The police jury didn’t see any advantages to take over the few acres. After all, nobody lived on the land, and it looked more like a money pit to them than a money maker, so they passed. By the time they realized that there might be money to be made from the triangle, it was too late. Bocca’s lawyers found an obscure Louisiana homesteading law that made the property his, and not only that, it turned out that Bocca didn’t have to pay taxes to anybody.”
“Who to? Nobody had jurisdiction over the land. Believe me, it went to court and everything.”
We pulled into Willy Thibodeaux’s farm lane and parked next to a tractor sitting idling in the front yard. Willy came out of the brick-sided farmhouse and let the screen door slam behind him.
“Hello, Sheriff,” he said sticking his hand out. “Hate for you to come out here for two measly chickens.”
“Hey, Willy. Good to see you again,” Pat said shaking the man’s hand. “This is John LeGrand. He’s helping me out on this one.”
“A chicken thief expert, eh?”
Willy reached over and shook my hand. He had a strong grip, and I tried not to wince.
“Well, it’s like I said on the phone. I guess I have a couple of chickens missing. I wouldn’t have known if there wasn’t this message scratched out in the dust of the chicken coop.”
“Is it still noticeable?”
“Afraid not, Sheriff. The chickens scratched over it pretty good. Really, you probably came out here for nothing.”
“That’s alright, Willy. It’s a nice day for a drive out in the country.”
Willy Thibodeaux laughed.
“If you want a drive out in the country, you can hop on that thing and open up a few irrigation ditches out back for me. With all that rain we had last week, it finally dried up enough for me to get some work done. The guy on Channel 10 said that we’re going to get another drenching next week.”
“I’ll pass on that, Willy. My tractor driving days are well behind me.”
We shook hands all around, and Pat drove off.
“Feel like taking a trip to a nightclub, John?”
“I thought you’d never ask me out on a date, Pat. Let’s do it.”
The blacktop to the Lac Vert State Forest is a snaky tree-lined two lane with several graveled and dirt entrances to the forest along the way. About six miles out of Ellisonville, the black top suddenly turns into a graveled road that Y’s after a couple of hundred feet. The left leg goes on for about a mile before hitting the St. Landry Parish blacktop road. The right leg dead ends at the Dead End Dance Hall after about two miles. The dancehall was a huge wooden structure with a rusted tin roof. The clearing around the building was graveled, but filled with potholes. Beyond the building were trees. A few foot trails were obvious. Behind the building was a shack, partially hidden by trees.
We pulled into the parking lot and parked next to a van pulling a trailer with The Ellisonville Playboys stenciled on it. The sounds of the band warming up leaked through the walls. Pat and I climbed out of the SUV and walked into the building. The last time I’d been in the building, it was a whorehouse. The only thing different now was that the tables had been shoved to the side, and the floor had been opened up for dancing. The bar was still stuck to the side. Several men already graced the stools and drank from dark bottles. The band, set up on a raised stage, tuned instruments and talked to each other in low tones. The jukebox located on the left of the bar played a country song. I didn’t recognize the artist. Occasionally, the guitar player joined in with a few chords.
Pat and I walked up to the bar, and Pat caught the bartender’s attention. He sauntered over, eying Pat’s sheriff’s uniform.
“The sheriff doesn’t have jurisdiction over here.”
“I didn’t come here to bust your butt. I came here to talk to your boss. I got a couple of questions to ask him.”
“He ain’t here. He went to town. Won’t be back ’til ten o’clock. You want something to drink?”
We both shook our heads.
“No,” Pat said. “We’ll be back tomorrow some time.”
Pat drove off and dropped me off at my house. I climbed out of the SUV.
“I’ll pick you up in the morning,” Pat shouted out through the passenger window.
“It’s Sunday, Pat. Not too damn early.”
“I know you. Wait until at least ten. Okay?”
I could tell he wanted to get started earlier than that, but he agreed.
He picked me up at 9:30—about as long as he could wait. I surprised him by being ready. The truth was, I wanted to solve this mystery as much as he did. We drove to the Saud Crapaud in silence. Pat tried the front door of the club, but it was locked.
“How about the shack,” I suggested.
“Good idea,” Pat said.
We weren’t more than twenty-five feet from the shack when I saw the screen door move. I pushed Pat aside, and dove onto the dusty ground and rolled to the edge of the path where there was cover. I never saw where the bullet hit, but I heard the pop of the rifle clear enough.
“Rifle,” I called out to Pat. “Coming from the front door.”
Pat was on his belly and making for an oak tree on edge of the path across from me, all the while, grumbling about getting shot over a few damn chickens.
“You, in there,” Pat called out once he’d made it behind the tree. “This is Sheriff Pat Broussard of the Ellison Parish Sheriff’s Department. I want to talk to you. Are you Ricky Frugé?”
“Do you think I would live in a shack like this if I owned this place? You ain’t got no jurisdiction here, Sheriff.”
“I’m getting tired of people telling me that,” Pat said to me.
“All I want to do is talk to you—ask you a few questions. If you don’t, I’m going to pull out this pistol and start putting holes through that flimsy door of yours, jurisdiction or not.”
“Alright. Alright. You don’t have to get all excited. Come on in.”
“Not before you step out and show yourself, and I would prefer you put that rifle down where I can keep my eye on it.”
The guy stepped out and leaned the rifle against the front wall. Pat stepped out, but I noticed he kept his hand on his pistol butt. He walked toward the shack. When he was about ten feet from the person, he stopped.
“What do you want, Sheriff?” The guy asked. He had a shaved head and dark beard. His accent was definitely Cajun.
“Who are you?”
“Pete Smith. I’m the manager here.”
“Why did you shoot at us?”
“I live out here by myself. People think I keep the money from the club in my shack, so I have to protect myself. Plus, I wasn’t shooting at you. I was just shooting over your heads to scare you.”
“Fair enough. Do you serve food here?”
“Non. Just booze.”
“Have you bought any chickens lately?”
“What kind of question is that?”
“Just answer the damn question.”
“No. I haven’t bought any chickens.”
“Anyone who works for you might have a reason to steal chickens?”
“Is this what all this about—chickens? Man, don’t you have more important things to do?”
“Just answer the questions.”
“No. I don’t think so.”
Pat nodded. He was out of questions. While Pat had been questioning the guy, I had left my hiding place and stood by Pat.
“All right then. Thanks for your cooperation.”
“Wait a minute, Pat. Anybody else live out here?
“That crazy old coot, Ezra lives out back there.” He nodded beyond his shack to the woods. The trees, mostly a mixture of hardwoods stood close to each other. Bramble and briar bushes competed with the trees. A path, barely recognizable as such, was visible next to the man’s shack.
“Ezra. He’s crazy, man. He cleans up the day after the dances—you know, sweeps, wipes the tables down, picks up trash. Walks around talking to himself—sorta sounds like a chant. Maybe he would steal chickens.”
“Have you seen him bring chickens back or anything like that?”
“No, I haven’t, but he’s crazy enough to do it.”
“Where does this Ezra live?”
The guy nodded his head to his left.
“Down there. Deep in the woods. You follow that path there.”
I looked at Pat and shrugged. He shrugged, too. We started up the path.
It wasn’t much of a path. Branches hung over it and we had to push them out of the way. There was only room for one person. Pat led the way, and he wasn’t exactly careful about letting the branches go after moving them aside. I was going to say something, but once we were on the path for a while, the going was easier. Someone had cleared the branches and widened the path a bit. I pulled up next to Pat.
“This is much better going,” I whispered. “I was getting irritated with those branches slapping my face.”
“Sorry, John,” Pat said, grinning.
The path twisted and turned the sun sneaking dots of light through the thick canopy of leaves. We had gone about a fifty yards when we heard something.
“What’s that?” Pat asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Unless it’s chanting. That’s what it sounds like, anyway.”
“I say we split up here. Follow the trail but one of us on each side of it. Not on it. Too easy to get ambushed that way. No sense taking unnecessary chances.”
I agreed with Pat. I’d already been shot at once today.
The going off the trail was difficult—the woods was filled with vines, bushes, small trees, dead branches, and something that looked and felt like a razor blade bush. The closer we got to the chanting, the more surreal it sounded. There was no doubt in my mind that what we were hearing was chanting. I couldn’t make out the words yet, but the rhythmic highs and lows of the voice sounded like chanting.
“John,” I heard Pat whisper. He crossed the path to my side.
“Can you see anything?”
“Not yet, but we must be getting close judging from the sound of that chanting.”
“Let’s stay within eyesight of each other.”
“Okay,” I said and watched him cross the path again. He signaled me, and we started forward together. I hadn’t gone very far when I caught my first glimpse of the shack. I signaled Pat, and he crossed over to my side.
“What?” He whispered.
I nodded toward a broken-down shack. The siding was weather-beaten, half-rotted boards that sagged downward succumbing to age, weather, and gravity. The rust-coated tin roof sagged also. The porch, probably covered with rot and missing boards, leaned heavily to the right. I could see no steps. A half-opened screen door marked the entrance to the shack. Two unopened, screenless windows sat on either side of the porch and glared outward.
“You see it?”
“Yeah. Not much to look at,” he said. “Let’s get a little closer. I want to see who’s creating all that commotion.”
We made our way forward trying very hard not snap twigs or make any unnecessary noises, although I doubted if anybody could have heard us over the chanting. When we arrived at the edge of the clearing, we both stared. We couldn’t believe what we were looking at. An old black man with a halo of white hair chanted and danced around a pole in a circle of dust. He slid bare, cracked feet through the dust creating little explosions. I could not make out any of the specific words he chanted, but I seemed to recognize the rhythm. I was willing it to bet that he was chanting the “Saud Crapaud” song.
“What the hell is he doing?” Pat asked.
“Dancing and singing, I would guess.”
Pat gave me a look that said, “This is strange.” I took the wait and see approach.
After a while, the man stopped and disappeared from our view.
“What’s he doing?” Pat asked. “He’s not running away is he?”
“Don’t know for sure, but I don’t think so.”
The old man reappeared holding a chicken by it’s two legs.
“Ah, ha,” Pat whispered. “Our chicken thief.” He started forward, but I put a hand on his arm.
“Wait,” I said. “Let’s see if we can figure out what he’s going to do with it.”
We didn’t have to wait long. He held the chicken upside down by its legs and dangled it in front of his face while he chanted and danced. Suddenly without warning, he leaned forward and bit through the chicken’s neck so that the head came out in his mouth. Blood spurted everywhere. The old man spit the head out and began turning round and round chanting loudly. I could hear the words now. He chanted the “Saud Caupaud” song. The blood sprayed out and made thin red circles in the dust.
“Oh, my God,” Pat whispered. “What the hell is he doing?”
“Voodoo, I’d guess,” I said. “Did you ever see The Comedians? The Haitians did a lot of dancing and chanting like that.”
“I’ll take your word for it, but what the hell is he trying to conjure up?”
“Look,” I said. The old man was scratching something in the dust, the chicken dripping blood onto his feet. “Saud Crapaud,” I said. “He’s definitely our man, Pat.”
Pat pulled out his pistol.
“I doubt if you’ll need that,” I said. “He looks pretty harmless to me.”
“Did you see how he chomped through that chicken neck? He may be old, but he’s got a nice set of chompers. I don’t want him within biting distance of me.”
I grinned and Pat grinned back. He replaced the pistol in his holster.
When the old man saw us walk out of the woods, he stopped chanting. There was blood all over him—his face, his white hair, his bare chest, his pants and his feet. He stared at us in wide-eyed surprise.
“You come for Ezra?”
“You’ve been stealing chickens.”
“I needed chickens for the ceremony. I’ll eat the chicken later.”
I smiled, but he didn’t smile back at me.
“You need to come with us,” Pat said. Ezra didn’t even blink. He started down the path, and we followed. When we arrived at the SUV, Pat opened the back door and helped him in. After we had traveled a ways down the road, I tried to talk to Ezra.
“Why do you write Saud Crapaud in the dust like that, Ezra?”
“Saud Crapaud is my djab.”
“What is a djab, Ezra?”
“Djab is badness.”
I asked a few other questions, but he refused to talk, so we traveled the rest of the way in silence
Pat took him to courthouse jail and turned him over to the on-duty deputy.
“Let me drive you home, John. We’re not going to find out anything tonight. I’ll come by tomorrow and fill you in, after we’ve got some information from him.”
“You damn well, better. We know who done it, but darn if we know why? What the heck is a djab and how do you spell it?”
That night I had a dreamed that started out as a nightmare, but turned out all right in the end.
I’m in a wooded area tied to a pole in the middle of a dusty circle. Ezra is dancing around me, dangling a live chicken before me. I try to follow him with my eyes. His chanting turns feverish, and then he bites the chicken head off. He swings the chicken round and round spraying me with blood. I try to avoid it, but blood splatters my face, my hair, my bare chest. I can feel it sliding down my skin. The old man continues to dance around me, chanting loudly. I close my eyes for a second, and when I open them again, Vera stands before me. She squints into my face.
“God, you’re a mess,” she says. “You got blood all over you.”
“Thanks a lot,” I say. “Have you noticed that I’m tied to a pole in the middle of the woods, and some crazy old man is dancing circles around me?”
“What old man?”
“That old Black man.” I look around but the old guy was not there anymore. “Untie me,” I tell her.
“I can’t,” she says. “You’re in a voodoo ceremony.”
“Of course you are. The old man was protecting you from me.”
“From you? Why?”
“I’m a loupgarou?”
She smiles revealing bloody fangs.
“Don’t worry about the blood,” she says. “That’s from the chicken. You see, I’m still the old man. I’m not really Vera.”
“You look like Vera.”
“That’s because I’m a baka.”
“What’s a baka?”
“Ask the old man.”
“He won’t answer me.”
“Neither will I.”
“I want to wake up, Vera.”
“Then wake up, John.”
I wake up and sit up in bed. Vera sits at the foot of my bed.
“Hey there good looking,” she says.
“What are you doing in Ellisonville?”
“Sharing your dream with you.”
“But I’m awake.”
“I just dropped in to tell you that I enjoyed your call yesterday.”
“I gotta go back to sleep, Vera. I’m too confused to stay awake.”
“Before you go back to sleep, John. Would you do me a favor?”
“Sure,” I say.
“Would you stop thinking about me? When you do that, it bothers my spirit. This whole Saud Crapaud thing. It was all about you and me. That whole tail growing back. You understand what that means don’t you.”
“Damn, Vera. Is this a quiz?”
“Regeneration. New life. Come on, John. You went to college.”
“It’s a symbol?”
“Exactly. Do you think you can remember it?”
“Of course I can remember.”
“Then go to sleep.”
My cellphone ringtone woke me up. It was Pat calling.
“For Christ sake,” he said when I answered it. “Were you still asleep? It’s four o’clock in the afternoon.”
“Man, you wouldn’t believe the dream I had. That old guy, what’s his name, and Vera were in it. She was a vampire.”
“Are you crazy? Maybe you’re still asleep. Hell, you’re crazy.”
“Alright, Pat. What have you got to tell me? Why was the old man doing the voodoo thing?”
“A djab is some kind of evil spirit. He’s delusional, John. I had that social worker from the clinic talk to him. She says she’s no psychologist, but she’s pretty sure he’s delusional. He’s loony tunes. He believes the dance club, he still thinks it’s the Saud Crapaud, is filled with evil spirits. I don’t remember what he called them.”
“Hey, that’s right. How did you know that?”
“I dreamed about it last night. I’m telling you it was a weird dream.”
“Anyway, he’s doing those voodoo ceremonies trying to get rid of the bakas. Problem was he needed chickens to do the ceremonies, so he started stealing chickens. The thing was the stealing part became ceremonial for him, so he starts scratching that saud crapaud in the dirt. Didn’t you say once that it would turn out to be something real simple?”
“Yeah, real simple, Pat. We get shot at. We get to watch some blood soaked voodoo ceremony. How much more simple could it get?”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. It wasn’t that simple, was it? Listen, I got to go. I’ll see you later. Maybe we can do some tennis this week if the weather improves some.”
“Later,” I said and hung up.
I lay back down in my bed and relived my dream. There was something in what Vera said. I smiled. I wished I hadn’t promised her I wouldn’t call again. I think she really would enjoy that loupgarou part.
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 Chataignier, Louisiana and is personally acquainted with his setting. He studied writing under Ernest Gaines, Richard Bausch, and Alan Cheuse.