When you’re single, male, and an out of work detective, you tend to visit the laundromat a lot. Not that I dirty more clothes than the next guy, but the laundromat is cheap, there usually are women present, and I like the Cajun and Zydeco music Tee Tommy Tauzin plays through the two monster JBLs hanging from the ceiling.
La Petite Laundromat is just across the tracks from where I live. When the trains rumble through every few hours, both our buildings shake like recovering alcoholics. Tee Tommy repaints the place every couple of years, a glossy white with red window trim, but a new coat of paint can’t hide the age of the place—the sagging roof, the rotten slats, the window panes without caulking. Tee Tommy’s front door is always open—twenty-four hours a day. At eleven every night Momma Vee, an ageless Vietnamese woman handles the few insomniacs that stagger in.
I walked through the front door at eleven according to the ancient Coca Cola clock at the back of the building. Tee Tommy was just walking out of his office door. Sometimes he stayed past midnight working on his books or playing solitaire on that computer of his for all I knew.
“Leaving already, Tee?”
“Hey, Johnnie Boy.” Tee Tommy flashed a mouthful of rotten and tobacco-stained teeth at me. “Bertha has a pot of shrimp and andouille gumbo waiting for me. I can smell it from here. Can’t you?”
I slipped the duffel bag from my shoulder and let it fall on the floor.
“How’s Bertha doing, Tee?” Bertha was his mildly retarded daughter. She was forty-five with stringy, dry white hair, a toothless mouth, and a scarecrow thin body, but she could cook up a storm according to Tee Tommy. His girth was testament to that truth; I figured he weighed well over three hundred pounds.
“She’s fine, John. Someday some lucky man’s gonna realize just how good she can cook, and he’ll marry her on the spot. I’m telling you.” Tee Tommy pulled a Winston from his shirt pocket and lit it with a battered Zippo. “How about you, Johnnie Boy? Not looking to get hitched are you?” He asked, smoke tumbling out of his mouth.
“Been there, Tee. Done that.”
Tee Tommy grinned. The truth was, he would not be able to make it without Bertha. She was his nurse, cook, and companion. There was no one else for him; his wife was dead, and he had no other children.
“Oh, well,” he drawled, shrugging his shoulders and exhaling a long stream of cigarette smoke. “All a daddy can do is try.” He slapped me on the back and waddled toward his battered Chevrolet pickup.
Momma Vee nodded at me and flashed me a toothless grin.
“Which machines are working tonight, Momma?”
“Nombres sept et huit,” she said holding first seven fingers and then eight. “Ils sont les meilleurs.” Momma Vee didn’t speak English, but she understood it perfectly.
I picked up my duffel bag and shoved my dirty clothes in the machines separating the whites and darks like my momma taught me. I dumped a cup of Tide in with each batch, placed my quarters in the appropriate slots, and listened to the tubs fill with water.
I chose to sit away from Momma Vee. She smoked putrid-smelling Asian cigarettes that her son brought from New Orleans. A Buckwheat Zydeco tune blared from the speakers drowning out the sound of my washers. I closed my eyes and concentrated on the music. I loved the accordion. My uncle Morris used to play it at the annual family gathering my family held when I was small, and every time I heard one, it transported back to those evenings: the mosquitoes, the humid Louisiana night air, the dark oaks decorated with moss, the wheezy accordion dancing on my uncle’s knee. After supper, everybody broke off into groups. The men gathered into little circles and discussed politics or crops, what was important to them. The women cleaned up and discussed children, cooking, and shared all sorts of personal information about their lives. The children ran around in and out of the darkness, oblivious to anything but the darkness burning all the excess energy stored in their young bodies.
I remembered one particular night when my father broke from the group of men and took my mother away from the women. Uncle Morris was playing a two-step. My father and mother twisted, turned, and kicked up dust while the rest of us clapped and played the spoons. When Uncle Morris ended the two-step, he jumped right into a waltz and my mother and father fell into each other’s arms. It was the first time I recognized the look of love on anyone.
Someone walked into the laundromat, and I opened my eyes. She stood in the doorway and surveyed the place. She had short brown hair, green eyes, and a long, slim nose. There was an air of mystery about her—she looked a little like Maxine Cooper, the girl who played Hammer’s secretary, Velda, in Kiss Me Deadly. She met my eyes and nodded. I nodded back. Then she carried her basket of clothes and dropped it in front of Momma Vee.
“Which machines are working tonight, Momma?”
I stared in surprise.
Momma Vee held up five fingers and then six. “Nombres cing et six,” she said.
The woman picked up her basket and started sorting clothes into the washing machines. She had on jeans and a white tee shirt. She was slim, pretty, thirty-something, and unattached, judging from the clothes she stuffed into the machines—no men’s clothes, no children’s clothes.
When she finished, she looked around and selected a blue plastic chair about five seats from me. I looked her way and made eye contact.
“I’m John LeGrand,” I said, standing and extending my hand. “I live just across the tracks there.” I nodded with my head. “I come in here pretty often, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen you before.”
She smiled and took my hand. She had a firm, but cool handshake, business-like.
“Becky Balfour,” she said. “I used to come here all the time. My daddy and I moved to Ellisonville from Opelousas when my mother died, oh, about twenty-five years ago. We lived just down the block a bit, on Cottonwood. How about you? Have you lived here long?”
“Born and raised about six miles south of here, just outside a little town called Serpentville.”
“I know that place,” she said. “Daddy took me there once for a festival.”
“Yeah, Le Festival de Lac Champignon.”
“That’s it. The band that played that night knew maybe four or five songs: a couple of jitterbugs, a couple of two-steps, and ‘Jolie Blonde.’ My daddy taught me how to Cajun dance.” For a moment, she was lost in the past. “I’m sorry,” she apologized. “When did you move to Ellisonville?”
“I came here in the mid-seventies, to take a few classes at Ellisonville Junior College, but I flunked out and did a two-year stint in the military. When I got out, I went back home to work on my daddy’s farm. When he and my mother died, I came back to EJC and received a two-year degree in police work. Then I attended USL in Lafayette and earned my BA in English of all things. Came back here, got a job with the Sheriff’s Department, met a woman, married her, and moved in the house I’m living in now. Five years later, she left me. That was about six years ago and here I am. My life in a nutshell.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”
“I didn’t mean to air my dirty laundry.” Then it dawned on both of us what I had said, and we laughed. She had a nice laugh, husky like Lauren Bacall.
“Are you still with the Sheriff’s Department?”
“No. That job went south. How about you? Any dirty laundry to air?”
“I really don’t like to talk so personally, especially since I don’t know you.”
“I understand,” I said, and it was true. I did understand. In my line of work, loose talk sometimes got you in trouble. I had no idea why I had blurted out the story of my life to her like that. I sat down next to her. “Listen,” I said. “I’m not prying. I have clothes washing. ‘Colinda,’ one of my favorite songs is playing, and Momma Vee is very poor company. I just want someone to talk to. It’s boring as hell in here with only Momma Vee to talk to.”
“Okay. Ten years ago my daddy died of lung cancer—from smoking all those cancer sticks, I guess.” She glanced at Momma Vee who was puffing away on her filterless stinkweeds. “I followed him to Lafayette where they cut out one lung and part of another. He didn’t stand a chance. I sold our house in Ellisonville and used the money to help pay for the doctor bills. We moved to Lafayette, so he could be close to the hospital. He died within six months after he was diagnosed with cancer. I didn’t know what to do, so I went to the university there, got a BA in English, and then got an MFA in Lake Charles, McNeese.”
“An MFA? In what?”
“A master of fine arts in fiction. I’m a writer, mostly short stories.” She waved it away like it wasn’t important, but her tone belied that. “Anyway, that’s where I met this real son-of-a-bitch whom I married for some strange and unexplained reason. I got a divorce and moved back to Ellisonville.” She shrugged. “I’ve got a part time job at EJC teaching English, so now I write whenever I can.”
“What a coincidence. I teach part time at EJC, too.”
My washing machine buzzed, so I stood, excused myself, unloaded my clean wet clothes into a basket, and rolled it to a dryer.
“Non. Non,” Momma Vee yelled. “Pas celui-là. Il a la gomme dans lui.”
I nodded and chose the one next to it. The last thing I wanted was gum on my clothes. Becky was beside me giggling like a little girl.
“What I don’t understand,” she whispered over my shoulder, “is how she knows all this stuff about these machines. She never moves from that chair.”
“I guess she has washer/dryer intuition,” I whispered back, enjoying the playfulness between us. I finished unloading the basket, slipped a couple of quarters into the machine, and we returned to our seats.
When she leaned over to sit, a small gold locket popped out of her tee shirt. She grabbed it and slipped it back. It was the only jewelry she wore except for the two small posts in her ears.
“That’s nice,” I said. “What is it? A locket?”
She pulled it out again and held it out for me to inspect. She leaned forward a little, and I smelled her perfume: fresh, like beach air. I turned the locket over in my hand. It looked old—engraved with a picture of a woman on the face of it and one of a man on the back. The details were incredible.
“This is fantastic work,” I said. “Who did it?”
“I don’t know,” she answered, taking the locket from me and straightening. “I don’t even know who the man and the woman are.” She opened the locket to reveal miniature portraits of the same man and woman. The woman faced the viewer—hair pulled back from her face, dark eyes staring straight ahead under dark brows, neck bare except for a locket. She wasn’t smiling, but the look on her face was not severe. She had a tiny mole on her upper lip. She wore a dark dress with no frills. The man faced the viewer, too. He had a hawkish nose, dark eyes under thick brows. He was not smiling either. He wore a dark suit, a white shirt, and a thin black tie.
“Wow,” I said. “I’m no artist, but this has to be the most impressive stuff I’ve ever seen. They look so…”
“In love,” she finished for me.
“I was going to say real, but you’re right, they do look in love.” I took the locket in my hand again and studied it. “How old is it?”
“I don’t know. It is the only thing my good for nothing husband ever gave me that I kept.”
“Where did he get it?”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know that either. He came home one night after being gone for two days, hands it to me, with some lame excuse for not calling or anything. Tells me later that he won it in a poker game.” She paused. “I suppose it’s possible. He did gamble a lot. I know he didn’t buy it; he never had any money. I suppose he could have stolen it, but I wouldn’t know who to return it to.” She took the locket from me and slipped it in her tee shirt again.
Her washing machines buzzed.
The Boogie Kings singing “St. James Infirmary” came on, and I listened to the soulful tune and watched her transfer her clothes to the dryer. For the first time since my wife left me, I was thinking about getting serious with a woman.
“What kind of stories do you write?” I asked her when she rejoined me.
She smiled, tolerantly, as if she’d been asked that question many times before.
“Mostly literary,” she said. “Mostly stories about characters I’ve known.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“No, not really.”
“Is it hard?” It was a stupid question, but I liked the way her eyes lit up when she talked about writing.
“The physical part is work—you know, putting down the words on the page, cutting and adding, but the creative part…” She paused. “It’s like watching a really good movie that you can interact with. You ever watch a really good movie? You forget who you are and you become the main character.”
“The Maltese Falcon. I was Sam Spade all the way.”
“Exactly. Creating is like that; the characters take you over, and you see the world through their eyes. Oh, it’s wonderful when it works.”
“What are you doing tomorrow?” I blurted out. “Would you go out to dinner with me? Or a movie?” I added as an afterthought.
“I can’t,” she said.
“I’m sorry. I haven’t had much practice in the past few years. My timing is off.”
“No. I didn’t mean I wouldn’t I only meant that I can’t. I teach a night class tomorrow evening and Friday. I would love to have dinner with you. How about a day next week?”
“I’ll call you,” I blurted out again.
She smiled. “How about Monday or Wednesday?”
“How about Monday and Wednesday?”
She laughed exposing her teeth. “Let’s not rush it.”
She reached into her jean pocket and pulled out a small notebook and a pen. She wrote her phone number down and handed it to me. I gave her one of my cards. She inspected it a moment before stuffing it into her jean pocket.
“You’re a detective?”
“Out of work at the moment. Mostly I chase down missing cows. Occasionally, I’ll get a divorce case or some other small-time puzzle one of the lawyers in this town will throw my way. That and my two part time law enforcement classes at EJC pay my utility and laundry bills.”
“Yeah well, somebody has to find them.”
Back in my house, I threw the duffel bag of clean clothes on the couch and checked my answering machine for messages, hoping against hope that someone in the town needed a detective. There were two messages: one from Pat Broussard, the sheriff of Ellison Parish, challenging me to a game of tennis on Sunday and one from Ellen Guillory over at Ellisonville City bank informing me that my $10.65 check to the City Bag Full O Groceries bounced. I had five days to make it good. Ellen was a friend and the manager at ECB. She probably covered it herself.
I picked up the phone and called Verbana Veillion. She worked as a loan officer at the junior college. She answered the phone on the seventh ring.
“Hello.” It was not a happy greeting.
“Verbana, this is John. Did I wake you?”
“Do you know what time it is, John? It’s one o’clock in the morning. Most decent people are asleep at this hour.”
“Tomorrow’s Thursday, Ver.”
“Some of us have work on Thursday.” There was a pause. “What do you want, John?”
“That’s my girl.” Verbana and I had dated a few times after Vera left me, but we never got past the friendship stage. In fact, she probably was one of the reasons I wasn’t still seeing the world from the bottom of a whiskey bottle. The other was Pat Broussard who was a little more aggressive straightening me out. “I need some information from you, honey.”
“Can’t it wait ’til tomorrow, John?”
“That would be too late, Ver.”
“Of course, it would be. What is it?”
“Do you know a part time English teacher at the college by the name of Becky Balfour?”
“Sort of. The president introduced her to faculty and staff a few weeks ago. She’s pretty smart, I hear. Came here from Lake Charles or Lafayette.”
“Lake Charles. You wouldn’t have her address.”
“That’s what they make phone books for, John.”
“She’s new. Remember? You have all that info hooked right into your computer.”
“You’re asking me to get out of bed and boot up my computer. As much as I like you, I’m not going to do it.”
“Why? What’s your interest in a part time English teacher for God’s sake?”
“I have a date with her on Monday, and I need to know where to pick her up.”
“Are you serious?” I could tell from her voice that she was out of bed and already walking—toward her computer, I hoped.
“Yep. Met her at La Petite Laundromat tonight. Shared our dirty laundry.”
“Oh, you. Can’t you ever be serious?” I heard the computer booting up.
“If I didn’t laugh, Ver, I could only cry.”
“I hear you, hon.” I heard her tapping on the keyboard. “Here it is. She lives on Catalpa, uh, 913.”
“Uh, huh. Not the best part of town.”
“You need to pay your part time English teachers more money.”
“Not until they pay the loan officers more. Can I go back to bed now, John?”
“Don’t let me keep you up, Ver.”
“John, I’m serious here. I could lose my job for doing what I just did. You understand?”
“I know, Ver. I owe you.”
“I’ve heard that story before,” she said and hung up on me.
Catalpa was only about three blocks west of Chinaberry where I lived. It ran along Catfish Creek, which was really a drainage ditch. Except for a few dilapidated clapboard houses, two or three trailer parks, a car junkyard, a blood weed pasture, and some wooded area, Catalpa had little to offer.
I climbed into my Dodge Ram van and searched for 913. It turned out it was in Shady Tree Trailer Park. Becky’s trailer rested on a tiny corner lot on Elm and Catalpa. She lived in a fifty-footer, with a busted screen door and a rusted roof. The steps leading to the front door looked rickety and rotten under the naked bulb that served as an outdoor light. Whatever else Becky Balfour might be, she was not a rich woman.
Pat Broussard loved to play tennis during the hottest part of the day. He claimed that the heat and humidity acted like a sauna, sweating out all the poisons from his body. It was 102 degrees at two p.m. Sunday afternoon. The asphalt courts must have added another ten or fifteen degrees to that. The humidity was somewhere around 90 per cent. I was soaked with sweat before I even swung my racket.
“Why do I torture myself like this?”
“Because you know this is good for you.”
“Air conditioning is good for me, Pat. Ice-cold lemonade is good for me. This is suicide.”
Pat laughed. He was a short stocky man with wide shoulders, a broad back and the beginnings of a paunch hanging over his waistline. He passed a hand through his salt and pepper hair.
“You’ll feel better after we play a couple of sets.”
“I’ll be dead after one game, Pat.”
“You serve first.”
“You’re all heart.”
We played one set, and after I had guzzled about a gallon of ice water, I asked Pat if he knew Becky Balfour.
“Balfour? Non, can’t say that I do. I knew a Frank Balfour about fourteen or fifteen years ago, I guess. Drove a delivery truck for the Feed and Seed store. One day, he just disappeared. Come to think of it, he might have had a daughter. Why you asking, John? Got yourself a case?”
“No. More like a date.”
“Get out of here. Are you serious?”
“It’s not a miracle, Pat. I’m not the worst catch in Ellisonville.”
“Just kidding, Neg. When did you meet this wonder woman?”
“I met her last night, in the laundromat. I think I like her, Pat.”
“That is good news. Tell you what. Let’s play another set, and I’ll treat you to a Gatorade when we’re done.”
“Really?” I struggled off the bench and grabbed my racket hoping that I would recuperate before my date the next day.
I called Becky that Sunday evening after I had showered and was beginning to feel reasonably alive. She answered on the third ring.
“Hello,” I said. “This is John LeGrand. The laundromat. Remember?”
“Of course I remember. The detective.”
“What time should I pick you up tomorrow evening?”
“You don’t waste time, do you?”
“You know what they say about wasted time, don’t you.”
“No. What do they say?”
“Hell, I don’t know. You’re the writer. I expected you to know.”
She laughed. I liked the music in her laugh. It sounded authentic.
“Where are we going, Mr. Wise guy.”
“I thought we’d go to Ally’s. Have you ever been there?”
“I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never been there.”
“The food is excellent. How about I pick you up around six thirty or seven, and we can have a cocktail before we eat.”
“That will be fine, John. Pick me up at the college in Hebert Hall.”
“The humanities study room, 213.”
“I know it. See you then.”
Ellisonville Junior College was located on the outskirts of the city just north of the city limits. It consisted of three buildings: the Administrative building, a one-story brick rectangle, which housed all the staff functions, Edwards Hall, the three-story science 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. Construction crews were busy building a fourth building, which the school promised would contain a state-of-the-art computer complex.
I found Becky sitting before a computer screen, which she shut down when she saw me. She looked nice—a blue sleeveless dress, white pumps, and a lacey, white shawl draped over her bare shoulders. Together we took the stairs to the first floor and walked out to the parking lot where my old van, recently washed, waxed, and vacuumed stood waiting for us. Becky nodded and raised an eyebrow when I held the passenger door opened for her.
Ally’s Restaurant was on the southeast side of town along Bayou des Sauvages. Ally, an African American woman crippled in a car wreck years before, was the best cook in the parish, possibly in the state. In only a few years, her restaurant earned the reputation as one of the best in Louisiana. I parked near the entrance of the old reconverted barn and escorted Becky inside. I gave the usher who greeted us, my name, and she said that my table would be ready in 20 or 30 minutes. I steered Becky to the bar. She ordered a whiskey sour, and I had a foreign beer. I paid with my credit card, praying that I hadn’t reached my limit. When our drinks came, I held up my bottle.
“To the prettiest woman in Ellisonville. May we be friends and beyond for a very long time.”
She paused before acknowledging my toast.
“What exactly does that ‘beyond’ mean?”
I smiled and tapped her glass with my bottle.
“I like you, Becky Balfour. More than I’ve liked any woman in many years. I don’t know exactly what I mean by that, but romance does come to mind.”
“I see.” She fiddled with the locket around her neck. “You don’t know me or anything about me.”
“Fair enough. Let’s get to know each other. I’m forty—in reasonably good shape. I drive a twenty-year-old Dodge Ram Van—in reasonably good shape, which might be overstating her condition. I teach part time at EJC. I occasionally work as a detective. I’m divorced—no kids. I own my home slash office. I call my cat Madam Leveau because she drives Mrs. Jogneau, my snoopy neighbor, wild. She thinks the cat is possessed. Now you know all there is to know about me.”
“Are you ever serious?”
She sipped from her drink. I could see that she had something on her mind.
“Well, I’m going to be serious for a moment, if you don’t mind.”
“My ex-husband called me today,” she blurted out. “I hadn’t heard from him since the divorce over a year ago. He wanted to talk. Said he missed me, and when that didn’t work, he admitted that he was broke and needed money. When I told him I didn’t have any money, he pleaded to meet with me. Just talk, he said.” She sipped her drink and stared at the bar. A woman, wearing a gaudy red dress seated at a table in the bar drank too much and laughed too loud.
“Are you going to meet with him?”
She met my gaze and frowned.
“Yes, I think I will. He’s a jerk and an asshole, but I did marry him once. I don’t give out my emotions that easily, John. There must have been something there, initially.”
The waitress came in and told me that my table was ready. We followed her into the already crowded restaurant. After we were seated and had ordered, I brought up the subject of her ex-husband again.
“What’s his name?”
“My ex? William.”
“Is he from around here?”
“No. He’s from Baton Rouge.”
I reached across the table and took her hands in mine.
“He must be a fool to give you up. That’s all I can say.”
“I think so too,” she said and smiled.
The food arrived, and it demanded our full attention.
After our meal, I took her to the Chateau, a small bar just a few blocks from the college. On Monday evenings, the place featured a three-piece jazz ensemble: a piano, a guitar, and a saxophone that never failed to stir my soul. We drank a few drinks, danced, and listened to music until the band packed up and left. I drove her back to the college and parked next to her battered Pinto. I felt a yearning in me that I had not felt in a long time, so I acted on it and kissed her.
“Good night,” she said, gently breaking away from the kiss.
Wednesday nights and every other Friday nights were free buffet nights at the Stagger Inn Bar. Sissy Ching set out miniature egg rolls, crab wontons, and a few other assorted snacks, and people from all over town came in, ate well, and drank much more than they ate. It was an excellent way to attract customers on a normally slow night. I was one of the few exceptions. Because of my financial straits, I ate more than I drank.
As usual, the place was dark, smoky, and loud. I dodged a couple of drunks and found my way to the buffet area. After I had loaded my plate with as much food as it would hold, I found a spot at the bar and ordered a Dixie from Stephanie, the Wednesday barmaid.
“Hey, Johnnie,” she said sliding a bottle to me. “How’s tricks?”
“How many times I have to tell you, Steph. I’m a detective not a whore.”
“Yeah? Well, it’s hard to tell the difference sometimes.”
I had to admit. She had a point there.
I surveyed the room in between bites and was surprised to see Becky sitting at a table by herself in a dark corner. I climbed off my stool, preparing to join her when a man walked in, looked around, and sat across from her. She didn’t seem particularly happy about it. They talked for a while, and then she stood up, almost knocking down her chair. She stomped out of the place, the guy following close behind her. I sacrificed my meal and followed them out. They stopped near Becky’s battered Pinto and argued. Becky waved her arms in the air, and the man banged his fist on the poor car. Finally, Becky threw her arms up in a gesture of defeat, climbed into the Pinto and drove off in a cacophony of smoke and grinding gears. The man kicked the tires on a Ford Explorer and stomped off in the direction of the Stagger Inn Motel. I followed and watched him enter room 23. I returned to the bar, but someone had already cleared my plate and the buffet hour was over. I drove home on an empty stomach.
I called her on Friday, got no answer, so I called the humanities office. A student aid worker answered.
“What time is Becky Balfour’s writing class?” I asked.
“Six o’clock, sir, but she didn’t show up for it.”
“What do you mean?”
“She didn’t show up for her six o’clock class. Mr. Fontenot let the students go.”
“Did anybody go to her place to see if she was all right?”
“Mr. Fontenot called, but didn’t get an answer. I don’t think he sent anybody over to her house.”
“Thank you.” I hung up and drove to her trailer.
The trailer was dark. The outside light was off. I parked next to her Pinto and climbed out of my van. I knocked on the trailer but received no answer. I tried the door; it was unlocked, so I pushed it opened and called out her name. When I received no answer, I walked in. I felt along the wall for the light switch. There are times when a dread comes over me, and I know that whatever it is I am going to face will not be pretty. This was one of those times, but I was not ready for what I saw when the light blinked on. Becky lay on the harvest gold carpet in a pool of blood. I think I called out her name. I fell to my knees next to her and felt for a pulse at her neck although I was certain there would be none. She was cold to the touch. It took a few minutes, but my detective instincts did kick in. I inspected the trailer. Somebody had been looking for something, and when he couldn’t find it, he killed Becky. Drawers had been pulled out, mattresses overturned, kitchen containers emptied out. Someone had done a very thorough job. I forced myself to examine Becky. She had been shot in the temple. Her wrists were bound behind her with an electrical cord. There didn’t seem to be any other marks on her except for a small thin bruise on the side of her neck. I remembered the locket then, but I didn’t see it. I searched the trailer again for it, but I didn’t find it. Either it was lost in the mess, or it was missing. I looked at Becky one last time, kissed her cold lips, and called Pat.
The police arrived minutes later—first Pat and then the Ellisonville cops. I met them outside, near my van. Pat walked right up to me while the EPD people entered the trailer.
“Yeah,” I said. “Shot in the temple.”
“I’m sorry, John. You were getting serious on her, weren’t you?”
I nodded, choking back a sob.
Pat waited a few seconds.
“Any idea who would do this?”
“None, Pat. I was just getting to know her. She was a writer for Christ’s sake.” I didn’t mention the man who had argued with her the night before. I wanted him for myself.
Pat wanted me to follow him to the courthouse, but I was having none of that. I wanted to have a chat with the guy from room 23. I parked my van in the shadows between the Stagger Inn Motel and the Stagger Inn Bar, stuffed my .45 in my back pocket, and followed the sidewalk to the metal stairs leading up to the second floor. The light was on in room 23—a good sign. I tried the door. It was locked, so I put my shoulder to it and splintered it opened. The guy was stuffing a stack of folded cloths into a suitcase when I came crashing in. He looked up and gave a weak whine when he saw my pistol pointed at his head.
“It wasn’t my idea,” he said. “They didn’t tell me whose place we were robbing.”
“Keep talking, dipshit because when you stop, I’m going to put one of these nasty slugs right into your temple. Just like you did to her.”
“To her? Who are you talking about? I didn’t kill anybody.”
I knew he was telling the truth, and it infuriated me. He had no idea what I was talking about. A guilty man couldn’t have faked such a surprise.
“You’re not talking.”
“Look, I didn’t kill anybody. I admitted I went along with those two bastards that night, but I didn’t kill anybody. The place was empty.”
“What’s Becky Balfour to you?”
“You heard me.”
“She’s my wife. Uh, ex-wife. What is this? What do you want to know about my ex for?”
“She was shot in the temple a few hours ago. I think you did it.”
He sat on the bed bringing his hands up to his face. Then he cried the tears leaking onto his chin. I gave him a moment.
“You killed her,” I said. I did not want him to be innocent. I wanted someone to exact my anger on, but I knew he hadn’t killed her.
“No way, man. I did not kill her.”
“I saw you two arguing Wednesday, right next to here.” I indicated the Stagger Inn Bar with my pistol.
“Sure we argued. We always argued.”
“None of your damn business.”
I took two steps and I was next to him. I put the forty-five to his temple.
“This makes it my business.”
“I wanted something from her.”
“She didn’t have any money. Anybody could tell that. Christ, look at the car she drove. You’re going to have to do better than that.”
“I can’t. You might as well shoot me.”
I grabbed him by the shirt, lifted him up, and slammed him against the wall so hard that it cracked the gypsum board. The tacky painting of the Mark Twain riverboat danced a few times and crashed to the floor.
“You’re trying my patience, William. A very good friend is dead for no apparent reason. You are the only connection I have. That makes you my number one suspect.”
I could tell from the fear reflected in his eyes that I was not going to get anything out of him. He was even more afraid of something else, but I couldn’t help myself. I was going to give him grief even if it was only a small measure of payback for the grief he must have given Becky.
“Go ahead and shoot, man. I can’t help you. I didn’t kill Becky.”
I slammed him into the wall a few more times.
“Okay, dipshit. I can see I’m not going to get anywhere with you. Let’s see what the sheriff can do.” I tapped him on the chest with the forty-five and backed out of the room. “Don’t go anywhere.”
Of course, he was going somewhere. I sat in my van and waited. It didn’t take long for him to take off. He tossed his suitcase in a green SUV, climbed in, and burned rubber taking off.
He led me out of town headed west toward Lac Point Vert National Forest. After about twenty or twenty-five minutes, he turned down a dusty graveled road for about two and a half miles. Then he took a right on a rutted dirt lane that led to a tarpaper camp. He parked his vehicle in front of the steps and left it running. I pulled my van into a clearing hidden from the lane by a couple of low-slung trees and made my way on foot through briar and underbrush until I could easily see the camp. I heard the whir of a generator, and William turned on some lights. I caught a glimpse of him pacing and talking on a phone. The mosquitoes were sucking me dry, and I was sure I could feel ticks and chiggers race up my legs to embed themselves on or near my privates.
I was about to give up waiting for something to happen when I heard a car. I ducked as the headlights swept over my hiding place. A black Mercedes with Louisiana plates parked in front of the SUV. Two men climbed out and walked up the porch. William held the door opened for them.
I was debating whether to make my way closer to the camp when I heard the shot—a small pop like a champagne cork shooting out of the bottle. I resisted the urge to blunder through the front door. I knew the next pop would be for me if I did that, so I crouched a little lower in my hiding place and waited. After twenty or thirty minutes, the two men came out, climbed into their Mercedes, and drove off in a cloud of dust. I waited until their taillights disappeared and made my way to the camp.
I found William on the kitchen floor, a bullet hole in his forehead. I checked for a pulse, but I found none. I stood and surveyed the camp. I found the same mess as in Becky’s trailer. I wondered what could be so important to merit two dead bodies. Whatever it was, it couldn’t be big or those two guys would have found it. From the look of it, they had been very thorough.
I walked into the bathroom. The lid was off the back of the toilet and the medicine cabinet had been ripped off the wall. What passed for a living room and bedroom was completely trashed—mattress ripped, drawers pulled out and emptied onto the floor, pillows ripped, and the stuffing dumped out. That left the kitchen.
The cupboards had been opened and cleared out. The dishwasher and the oven doors stood opened. Someone had ripped open every box and bag in the place, and dumped their contents on the floor. I stood in the middle of the kitchen and tried to notice what had not been touched. I opened the loaf of bread and dumped the slices on the counter—nothing. I opened a container of grits that had escaped the two men—nothing. I scratched my head. I found a box of Poptarts—nothing. I looked inside a beer stein, an empty cooler, and an empty milk carton in the trashcan—nothing, nothing, nothing. I was about to give up and call Pat when I noticed the coffee pot. The pot itself was empty, so I checked the part where you pour the water in. Bingo. I found Becky’s locket. I held it out in front of me and watched it spin around—man, woman, man.
“So you’re the cause of all this murder and mayhem, huh? What’s your secret?”
I opened it and examined the two pictures, but I could not find anything that might be worth a couple of murders. Then again, I knew practically nothing about lockets and miniatures. I closed it and stuffed it in my pocket. Then I called Pat.
“What the hell is this all about, John?” He asked after he’d examined the body.
“I don’t know, Pat.”
“Bullshit, you don’t know. You meet this woman at the laundromat and a few days later, she’s dead. Now you call me up, and this guy is dead and here you are standing over his body as well.”
“He’s her ex.”
“He’s her ex-husband.”
Pat shook his head in disbelief.
“You’ve gone and done it now, John.”
“Come on, Pat. You really don’t think I killed these people. God, you have to know me better than that.”
He grabbed my arm and pulled me closer to him.
“Exactly, John. I know you. You didn’t kill that woman, and you didn’t kill this guy, but you know what this is about. You’re too good a detective not to know.”
“Pat, I honest-to-God don’t know.”
He released me and stared down at the blood soaking into the rough wooden floor.
“Then you have an idea, but you don’t want to share it until it makes complete sense to you.”
The man knew me all right. Somebody wanted that locket, and I didn’t know why. It was more than that, though. It had become personal. Those two guys pulled the trigger, but somebody else was behind them. I was almost positive of that. Whoever was responsible for Becky’s death was going to pay, and as much as I owed Pat, I couldn’t let him get in my way.
“As soon as I figure it out, Pat, you’ll be the first to know.”
“No I won’t. I’ll be the second.”
He had a point there.
The cable company had turned off my cable because I hadn’t paid the bill in two months, forcing me to use the public library for computer access.
The main Ellisonville library was located on a side street in a Victorian house once owned by a rich old woman who donated it to the city designating it as a library in her will. It was the most impressive building in town—built in 1845, the house sported a real tower and two turrets in the rear, stained glassed windows along the front gallery, two domed ceilings with plantation murals, Victorian wallpaper the color of flowers: primrose, rose, violet, carnation, lace curtains, fourteen foot ceilings, a crystal chandelier, and a split staircase. I parked on the street and walked the half block to the library. Old Mrs. Miller sat behind the checkout counter and gave me a hard look over her reading glasses. She was probably as old as the building she watched over, and she never forgot a face or a name.
“Mr. LeGrand,” she said in her raspy voice. “What can we do for you?”
“I need to get on the Internet, Mrs. Miller. I need to do some research.”
“Up the stairs. Second door to your left in the cornflower room. It is clearly marked—Computer Room.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Miller.” I started up the stairs.
“Don’t forget to sign in, young man. The book is right near the door.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said over my shoulder.
The web wasn’t much help. I tried several key words and combination of key words: antique lockets, antique miniature portraits, locket portraits, European miniatures, and so on. I didn’t know what I was looking for. I was hoping something would jump out at me. After an hour and a half at the computer however, I had a horrible headache and was no wiser.
Mrs. Miller eyed me suspiciously, as I came down the stairs. She asked me if I remembered to sign out.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said and exited. I climbed into my van and sat for a few minutes trying to figure out the next step. I had no clue. What was the locket’s secret? I pulled it out of my pocket and examined it again. Maybe it had something to do with when it was created. It looked as if these two characters were out of the nineteenth or early twentieth century, but that didn’t really tell me anything. The man and woman looked Greek or Italian—from that part of the world—but I was just guessing. I studied the miniatures again, but it only frustrated me. I had just decided to go back into the library when I caught a familiar sight in the outside van mirrors. Parked four or five cars behind me was a black Mercedes with two occupants. I needed to talk to them real bad. Of course, there could be a certain amount of danger in that.
I pulled out into the street slowly, keeping a wary eye on the rear view mirror. The Mercedes pulled out with me. So they were following me. I was a person of interest. They must have found out somehow that I was the last one to see William before they shot him. Good. Now, all I had to do was devise a plan before they decided to terminate me, or the cops recognized their license plates as the one I’d given Pat and pulled them over. I drove aimlessly for the next few minutes. The Mercedes followed at a discreet distance. I was near the Lac Point Vert National Forest entrance when an idea struck me. There were countless dead end roads in there. What if I lured them into a trap? I entered the forest and drove toward the lake. After about a mile or so, I took a graveled road I knew and drove down it for a while. The Mercedes stayed behind me. Then I took another left onto a smaller graveled road that dead-ended at the lake. About halfway to the lake, just after a sharp curve, I veered off and steered around a couple of small pine trees. I waited until the Mercedes passed by, and backed out, parking my van across the road. It was narrow here, and the men would not be able to force their way around me. I stood near the front of my van and aimed my forty-five up the road. The Mercedes appeared and slid to a halt about ten feet from my van.
I motioned them out of the car with my pistol. The driver came out first, keeping his hands visible on the car door. The passenger opened his door and came out with a pistol. The slug from my 45 caught him on the left shoulder and knocked him down. The driver raised his hands higher.
“Don’t shoot,” he pleaded. “I don’t have a gun.”
“Good,” I said and walked to the passenger, keeping my gun trained on the driver. I kicked the gun away and motioned him up.
He moaned a little, but did as I said.
“Okay, boys, start talking.”
“We got nothing to say,” the driver mumbled.
“Oh, I beg to differ with you.” I walked up to him and placed the barrel of my forty-five against his temple. “You ever see the exit wound from a forty-five slug in the head. It goes in smooth—a tiny little hole no bigger than a red bean—but it makes a real mess when it comes out. Takes most of your head with it—brains, bones, and shit like that. It’s nasty; but then again, you won’t much care, will you?”
“What do you want to know?”
A real tough guy.
“Who do you work for?”
“I’m dead if I tell you.”
“You’re dead if you don’t.” I gave him my best Mike Hammer impression—not the Stacy Keach one, but the Darren McGavin Hammer.
“The New Orleans Mafia boss?”
The whole situation was suddenly out of hand. Forget that Ellisonville had maybe a handful of murders in the last couple of decades. Forget that most people in Ellisonville could barely spell mafia, let alone know what mafia was. Here I was, faced with two mafia goons. It was almost too much to believe. The funny thing was that these guys didn’t look like goons, or what I expected goons to look like. The driver was dressed in jeans, tee shirt, sneakers, and sported a baseball cap. The passenger was dressed a little better—slacks, button down shirt, and a sports jacket.
“What’s so important that he sends you up here to kill two people?”
“He’s missing something, and he wants it back in a bad way.”
“I’ll say. What’s so important about a locket?”
The guy’s eyes lit up. He almost forgot that I was holding a pistol to his head. I tapped it against his temple as a little reminder. He quickly came back to earth.
“Yeah, well, it’s his and he wants it back. Some small time hoods stole it. The locket was his grandmother’s.”
“Why kill the girl? She had nothing to do with any of this.”
He glanced nervously at his partner bleeding and panting on the other side of the car.
“We found out from one of the hoods that this William Kwencher guy gave the locket to his wife. At first, she wouldn’t talk to us, but after we started trashing her trailer, she let out that her husband had come by earlier and ripped it off her neck. I guess the bastard had other plans for it.”
“So why shoot her? She told you what you wanted to know.”
“She was a liability. We figured she’d call the cops as soon as we walked out.”
It took every bit of self-control I had not to pull the trigger. The guy must have sensed it because he tensed.
“What brought you to that camp where he was located?”
“He called Mr. Agati and offered him a deal—twenty thousand dollars for the locket. Mr. Agati gave him our number. We set up a meeting with him at the hotel, but he was gone by the time we got there. He called a few minutes later and gave us directions to the camp, but Joey shot him before we could force the location of the locket from him.” He cut his eyes to me. “Where was it?”
“The back of the coffee maker.”
“I would have never guessed there.”
I shot out all four tires on the Mercedes and climbed into my van. I would call Pat and tell him where to pick up the two goons.
“I’ll bleed to death,” the passenger whined.
“That’s probably a good thing. It’ll save Agati the trouble of killing you when he finds out you talked so much.”
I drove off, spewing dirt and gravel in their direction.
I needed to take a trip to New Orleans, but the way my van consumed fuel, I wouldn’t be able to afford it and eat for a whole month afterwards. I needed a conference to attend in New Orleans. As a part time teacher at the college, I was privileged to a couple of hundred dollars travel money and two or three hundred grant money if I could justify its importance as professional development. I called my department head to see what I could come up with, and she told me about the Louisiana Fraternal Order of Police that was having a conference at the Ernest Morial Convention Center in New Orleans.
“Pretty short notice, though, John. The conference takes place tomorrow night.”
“I’ll take it,” I said.
“There’s one little problem, though. You’ll need proof of an invitation before I can approve the travel money. There is a grant available to pay the conference fee and the hotel fee, but you’ll have to submit the grant application form and have it approved.”
“I can have that form filled out in an hour or so, Janet. Can you push it through in time?”
“It shouldn’t be a problem. That conference is for active police officers, though. How are you going to get an invitation to it?”
“Leave it to me. Will an email suffice?”
“Yeah, if it’s from a credible source.”
“I’ll see you in an hour.”
Sonny Trahan was vice president of the local FOP lodge and a member of the board of directors of the state lodge. We met a few years back at a Sheriff’s convention in Baton Rouge. We became friends while trying to drink all the bars in Baton Rouge dry. I called him, and he said he’d send me an email immediately. He looked forward to partying with me in New Orleans.
Armed with my invitation and my grant application, I marched in Janet’s office an hour and a half later.
“Why the big hurry, John?” Janet was a big-boned woman overweight with blonde hair and deep blue eyes. She loved to wear outlandish clothes. She was dressed in a full-length skirt held at the waist with a red sash and a shirt that looked like Japan’s national flag.
“I found out that they were going to offer a workshop on criminal profiling, Janet. I was thinking of adding a profiling component to my Intro Criminal Justice course.” I had no idea what the conference was focusing on, but I doubted she did either.
“That sounds good, John. I’ll approve this, and I’m sure the Academic Dean and the president will, also.” She gave me a set of keys and a credit card. “Use the Ford Econoline van. Use the credit card for fuel. You’ll have to cover other expenses such as fuel, meals, hotel, etc. When you return, just fill out the proper forms, and we’ll reimburse you. I’ll see you on Monday.”
I pocketed the keys and the card and thanked her. I was on my way to New Orleans.
I met Sonny at the convention center. I checked into my room, and he and I had a few beers. At midnight, I left him with instructions to take copious notes, in case I couldn’t make it. He laughed and joked about my hot date. He was already drunk.
A little research told me that Joseph Agati lived in a million-dollar-plus house on St. John’s bayou not far from the city park area. I had to assume that his place would be well protected, probably with guards and alarms, but I figured if three amateur thieves could get through his security system, I could too. I couldn’t very well park my Ford Econoline van with the state of Louisiana seal on the door in that neighborhood, so I used my credit card and rented a Lincoln. There was little chance that I would be able to justify that expense with Janet, but it was necessary.
I found the house with little effort. I figured the Lincoln wouldn’t stand out if I parked it on Agati’s street. I walked up the short walk and climbed up a few steps onto the front porch. The entrance was well hidden from the road by a few hanging Boston ferns and some other plants I didn’t recognize. I followed the front porch to where it joined with a few shrubs and a side path that I assumed led to the back yard. It was nothing to scale the metal porch rail, jump over a hedge, and land on the brick path. I tried a locked door, which probably accessed the underneath of the house. I followed the path to the back yard. A ten-foot stone wall bordered the back of the yard and a row of crepe myrtles fronted the wall. A round table with an umbrella and four chairs stood in the middle of the yard.
I smelled cigarette smoke. I crouched behind a shrub and watched as a man stood on a small back porch and smoked a cigarette. He climbed down the steps and started in my direction. I crouched even lower. The man crossed the yard to the back fence. I darted from my hiding place, ran up the steps, and ducked through a pair of French doors into a den. A kitchen stood to my left. It was empty, so I followed the hall to a foyer. A crystal chandelier glittered softly from an upstairs light. I climbed up the hourglass stairs with the ornate mahogany spindles. A hall light burned dimly. A small beam of light spilled out from a closed door. I pulled out my pistol and slowly opened it a crack. A woman lay in a king size bed and watched a “Three’s Company” rerun. I closed the door and checked out the other rooms on that floor. The next room was the master bedroom, I supposed. It took up most of the floor. The closet could have been a bedroom in its own right. I found a combination library and office, but it was empty and dark. A computer screensaver danced in the darkness.
I went back down the stairs, and found another set of stairs, not as elaborate, leading to a game room: a card table with a smooth leather top, a bar with stools, two billiard tables, a fireplace, and two doors, one that revealed a sliver of light. I made my way to the door and slowly opened it. Agati was well known in Louisiana, and I’d seen many of his pictures in the newspapers, so I recognized him immediately: heavyset, long crooked nose, salt and pepper hair. He sat at a desk working over a stack of papers. He didn’t look up.
“Just put it on the table there, Margaret.”
“I’m not Margaret.”
He looked up, his dark eyes widening in surprise.
“Who are you?”
I waved my forty-five around a little just to let him know who was in control.
“The man with the big gun. I’d like you to keep your hands where I can see them. Then I’d like you to stand and sit at that table there.” He did as he was told.
“You know, if you shoot that thing, there’ll be four or five guards in here within seconds. Believe me, you wouldn’t survive.”
“You’d never find out, would you?”
He smiled revealing coffee stained teeth.
“Good point. Do you know who I am?”
“Joseph Agati, mob boss.”
“You realize I got more power at my fingertips than the governor of Louisiana.”
“Everybody has their weak points, Agati. You took something important from me, and I want to know why. The locket is nothing compared to what you stole from me, but I can see it means a lot to you.”
“You son-of-a-bitch. You have the locket? I’ll hunt you down to the ends of the earth.”
“Sure you will. What makes you think I’ll stand for it? Maybe I’ll just come in here, in your million-dollar St. John Bayou View home, and stop you.”
“You got gonads. I’ll give you that. What you don’t realize is that I never make the same mistake twice.”
“I believe you. That’s why I was able to get in here so easily.”
“Maybe I let you get in—sort of like the spider and the fly.”
“I don’t think so, Agati.”
“I want that locket back.”
“By the time your buddies spill all they know to the Ellison Parish sheriff, that locket will be the least of your worries.”
“My boys won’t talk. They know better.”
I laughed, giving him my best Bogart imitation. I even hitched my pants a little keeping my gun where Agati could see it.
“How do you think I found you, Agati? Guesswork?”
He blanched. Then he flushed as anger replaced shock.
“Don’t be too hard on them. You’d talk too, Agati, facing a madman in the middle of a forest holding a forty-five on you.”
“What do you want?”
“I want some explanation. Why did two people have to die?”
“Four people died. Those three bastards who robbed me and that woman.”
“The woman was a friend of mine. She had nothing to do with the theft.”
Agati shrugged. It was of no consequence to him.
“A casualty of war.”
I swallowed the bile building up in my throat.
“What’s so important about that damn locket anyway?”
“First and foremost, it belongs to me and what belongs to me, stays with me. The locket was my great grandmother’s. She and my great grandfather had it made just before his death. He was an aristocrat—assassinated by a deranged socialist just before World War I. My great grandmother escaped to America with the clothes on her back and that locket. She gave birth to my grandfather, who came out of the womb knowing he would make the name Agati one to be respected and feared again. My great grandmother made sure of that.”
“That’s it. You have an innocent woman killed because the locket had sentimental value for you?”
“That’s right; the locket is a reminder of all the shit my ancestors had to go through.”
“So you kill people, innocent people, because you got a gripe?”
Agati sat up straighter and stared me right in the eyes.
“I am a powerful man. If it wasn’t me pulling the strings, it would be someone else. The locket belongs to me. Some cheap hoods stole it from me. In my efforts to get it back, your woman got killed. You can’t blame me for that, any more than you can blame a general for the death of one civilian.”
“Don’t flatter yourself, Agati. You’re no general. You’re a crook.”
“Damn it. The locket is mine. It has been in my family for generations. It represents my past. Can’t you understand how valuable that is to me?”
“The woman you killed so brutally was my friend. She represented my future, Asshole, and I’ll never see it materialize, just like you won’t see that damn locket materialize again.”
“You don’t stand a chance in hell. I’ll have it back before you’re halfway back to wherever you come from.”
“Come after me and you’ll never see this locket again.” I patted my shirt pocket. He leaned forward, so I raised the gun just in case he had any ideas. “You see, Agati that piece of shit necklace means nothing to me. If I even smell you, your men, or anybody who resembles you, I will take my trusty ballpeen hammer and smash it to pieces.
“Another thing, I doubt it, but you might escape killing my friend and that bastard ex-husband of hers, but kill me and you will fry. I made damn sure that all the trails lead to you.”
“You think so? I have money and lawyers to protect me from that kind of stuff.”
“Yeah, the cemetery is full of rich criminals.”
“Do I ever get my locket back?”
“Will you give me my friend back?”
“I see. It’s an impasse.”
“I’m leaving now, Agati. Don’t even try to follow me.” I patted my shirt pocket again, so he would get the message.
He nodded, his posture reflecting his defeat. I walked behind him and swung my pistol as hard as I could against the top of his head. The blow gave a sickening crunch, and he slumped down in his office chair. I didn’t know whether I had killed him or not.
Personally, I didn’t care.
The Ford van hummed along with the slap slap of the tires on the pavement, and I struggled not to nod off. I-10 can lull you to sleep if you’re not careful. The locket was mine now. I understood Agati’s passion for it—it was a reminder of a time when his ancestors were not thieves and criminals. Without it, he was not legitimate—he was just a cheap gangster whose power was as finite as his life. Its absence was a reminder that there were some people, like me, he could not buy or push around. It made a nice bur under his expensive mafia saddle. He would probably buy his way out of serving any jail time, but life would never be the same for him. He would always know that I had the locket—his great grandparents were in my hands.
The locket served another purpose for me, too. It reminded of that kiss I shared with Becky next to that battered Pinto of hers. It gave me hope that I would not die a lonely old man, that there might be another person somewhere meant just for me.
Just past the Atchafalya Swamp, after the Henderson/Breaux Bridge exit, I saw a huge live oak illuminated by a dusk to dawn light, and I remembered that time when I first understood what love looked like—two people, face to face, locked together in an eternal embrace.
I hung the locket on the rearview mirror and watched it dance round and round.
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, MystericalE, The Riverbend Review, The Writing Disorder, 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.