Abbeville Pearls - Part Two

Updated: Jun 16, 2019

~ A Mystery Novel ~

This is a work of fiction inspired by real experiences of my life. It includes passages of real events, people, places etc. as commentary, but the story itself is fabricated from my imagination in which all events, places and people–living, dead, or anywhere in between–are entirely fictional. The real stuff is clearly indicated as such at the beginning of each chapter, followed by nothing but fiction until the beginning of the next chapter.


Why? I'm not sure. It just seemed the best way to get this story written.

CHAPTER ELEVEN



~ THE TRUE STUFF ~ About ten years before I was born, a teenage boy named Willie Francis was strapped into Gruesome Gertie, twice, before he finally died at age eighteen. The first attempt failed when Willie was seventeen because a drunken prison guard incorrectly set up Gruesome Gertie before flipping the switch. Gruesome Gertie was an electric chair hauled around the state of Louisiana as needed for execution of convicted murderers until I was one year old when an execution chamber was built at the state penitentiary to permanently house Gruesome Gertie, where all executions were carried out using the chair until state legislature passed a law in 1991 to switch to lethal injection executions. After twisting off from life working as an employee in the fall of 2006, I watched Allen Durand's documentary "Willie Francis Must Die Again" sometime during winter of that year. I was both excited and frightened about starting the journey of self-employment and after finishing my first small contract job for a local ranch and supply outfit, I had a lot of free time to think and worry about the future as winter set in. It was cold outside and the wind was blowing hard enough to make the house shake the night I watched the film, heightening a growing sense of forlorn hopelessness I struggled to push down. Willie's trial lasted less than one day. An all white, all male jury deliberated only fifteen minutes before returning a guilty verdict. Being black in a southern state still very isolated from the rest of the nation at the time, Willie never had a chance until surviving his first time riding the lightning. But despite a young lawyer's attempt to save him from being strapped into Gruesome Gertie a second time–an attempt which went all the way to the United States Supreme Court and failed–Willie was successfully executed in spring of 1947. Successfully. What a word to describe such a hateful act of injustice.

~ THE MADE-UP STUFF ~

A year has passed since Addy disappeared without a trace. No one has come forward with any information or evidence regarding her whereabouts, living or dead. My grief is all consuming. Less than a week after Addy was gone, I couldn't think well enough to work and had to take an extended leave of absence from my job at the EPA without any guarantee the job would be there for me if I ever returned to work. I don't give a damn if it is or isn't. I decided I just wanted to be alone, and after colleagues at the EPA provided ample proof that I was nowhere near Vermilion Parish for several days surrounding Addy's disappearance, I shuttered Addy's Dive, thanking the staff for all of their devotion and hard work, and disappeared myself, taking the pirogue Edmée had given to us as a wedding gift deep into bayou country, living off of the land, and steadily going very insane.


Sheriff Patrae Nolan continued his investigations into her disappearance as best he could with so little hard evidence to work with, aside from me telling him Addy's entire family– except for Jase–had turned on her when Edmée had declared us successors to her family trust. The sheriff thought this a significant fact considering how soon after that she disappeared and suspected someone in the family had murdered Addy and disposed of her body somewhere in a swamp or bayou nearby. He warned me I might now be a target of the same murderer.


After interviewing me, Sheriff Nolan pulled no punches, telling me it was likely Addy was dead and her body wasn't very far away. "Murderers are inherently lazy, and not always very smart, Billy. I'll keep the case open and do all I can, but without anymore leads than Carly and Pete seeing Addy walking home from the restaurant, there's not much chance of finding her unless someone stumbles upon her remains. Fisherman, or hunters, or kids roaming around out there..." he said, waving an arm at nowhere in particular, "...might find them."


So I thanked the sheriff for his work and continuing attention, then provisioned myself with gear, clothing and supplies and set out to spend every waking moment searching for her myself. Nothing else mattered, and I knew I could live indefinitely off of the lands and waterways as I searched. I would grow very smelly and very hairy doing it, but that didn't matter either. I'm always alone now, never interacting with anyone unless I discover they matter some way in Addy's disappearance. That has never happened, so far. I've been at it for thirteen months now, floating every bend in every bayou, poking at and dragging a hook along the bottoms of bayous and swamps, finding nothing but a lot of junk.


I've worked every place I can find to go in Vermilion Parish back country, now I'm heading up the Vermilion back toward Sauderton, to the cemetery where I first met Charley and Jase while I was playing hooky so long ago. I don't know why I'm going there. Addy's remains are most likely not buried or sunk anywhere near there. It's just someplace I need to go right now, to remember and maybe get a little sleep before floating south again.

CHAPTER TWELVE


~ THE TRUE STUFF ~ The oldest brother of childhood friends of mine, along with two of his friends, inexplicably disappeared in the fall of 1970 on November 20th. I was living in west Texas at the time and my grandparents told us about Jimmy's disappearance. Nothing about their disappearance made any sense. Jimmy had a paycheck to pick up the following Monday after he disappeared, a thing no teenager would forget or walk away from. Law enforcement assumed he had pulled the same stunt I pulled three years later when I ran away from that same town to Colorado in October of 1973, my mind brimming with ridiculous dreams of becoming a famous banjo player in some up-and-coming "Nitty Gritty Dirt Band" type of jug band. With no solid evidence to work with, investigators were never able to carry on with the case and it very quickly grew cold. Almost forty three years later, I was surfing news feeds one evening in mid September 2013 when an article originating out of Oklahoma pops up on screen describing two cars pulled from a reservoir in the southwestern part of the state near a small town my father's aunt and uncle once lived. We had visited them there just about around the time Jimmy and his friends had disappeared, even camping on the shores of that same reservoir the following summer after returning from a long vacation in New Mexico. The news article reported that one of the cars police retrieved near a boat ramp of that reservoir had been tentatively identified as Jimmy's 1969 Camaro. I was tempted to call Jimmy's brother, Gary, to find out if it was actually his Camaro, but held off, pretty sure he and his family were being assailed by the media for any and all scraps of information they might be able to use in the news outlet feeding frenzy that ensued following the discovery of the sunken vehicles. A day or two later, after the frenzy had dropped off a bit, Gary called and told me it was indeed Jimmy's car. The only thing I could think of to say to Gary during the call was that I was glad Jimmy, Thomas and Leah had finally been found. He confided that the media were after them around the clock for more information to use in their reporting, sounding pretty stressed out about that, so I told him that he owed the media absolutely nothing before we ended the call. A little over one year later, results of genetic analysis of the remains found in the Camaro were announced, verifying that they were Jimmy, Leah and Thomas. Part of the mystery (where their remains were for more than four decades) had been solved. A lot of unanswered questions remain, though, for Gary and his surviving family members–not the least of which is why.

~ THE MADE-UP STUFF ~

I had some trouble finding the spot I first met Charley and Jase. The cemetery was gone, probably relocated after development of the subdivision progressed and the banks of the Vermilion were cleaned up for that. I finally found it by a red pine I remembered growing beside the cemetery and a single chunk of concrete left behind from the raised grave vault with the corner smashed out of it that my brothers and I dared each other to stick our heads into to have a look so long ago. I had seen that piece of concrete before, having picked it up and examined it closely before tossing it aside. A strange memory of detail that stuck. The red pine had grown several dozen feet over the decade since I had first seen it, now a mature tree. Clutching the chunk of concrete, turning it in my hand to feel its cracks and crannies, I sat on the bank. Then I laid down, curled up into a tight ball and slept.


I have no idea how long I slept. A few hours, maybe. The day was overcast so reckoning by the sun's position in the sky wasn't possible. Charley woke me up with a gentle shaking of my shoulder, softly speaking my name just above a whisper. I opened my eyes and looked into his. He had aged a lot. Then Jase appeared beside him. He had aged even more. "Hello, Billy Boy," he said with a broad smile, reaching out to touch my knee with a hand even more gnarly than it was last time I saw it. "We've missed you, son."


The sight of them together there was as much a surprise as an emotional blow. It felt like a dream, a very sad but somehow pleasant one. I hadn't had a pleasant dream all year long. All my sleep-time visions had been terrible nightmares laced with images of Addy in various advanced states of decay, but still able to speak to me. Able to reach out for me, but never connecting. Never speaking.


Sitting up with a start, I reached out to both of them, beseechingly, and they gently helped me get to my feet. With a hand on their shoulders, I pushed and pulled at them as I stood, speechless, trying to make sure they were really there. Finally convinced they were, tears welled up in my eyes and I struggled to restrain a sob, failing completely. I sank to my knees and bawled hard and loud, like a starving baby no one wanted to feed for far too long. My closest friends knelt beside me and gently held onto my arms, letting me know they were still there–silently, patiently waiting for me to cry it out. I hadn't cried even once since being told Addy had mysteriously disappeared, staying away from that release out of fear it would release me from any remaining determination to find her.


When the wracking sobs finally subsided, we began talking. They let me know there had been no breaks in the case. Sheriff Nolan had not given up, though. After interviewing every single member of Addy's angry family, a few who were now locked up in different jails around the state on unrelated crimes, he had switched to interviewing other convicts that had even the slightest connection to the community, hoping one of them would know something, some additional detail no matter how small, about Addy's disappearance. Anything. But his efforts had yielding nothing new or old. The only people who knew anything at all were Carly and Pete, former staff of Addy's Dive who had seen her walking home, alone, the night she had gone missing.


The aching concern in my friends eyes was painful to see. It rested deep in those aging, old eyes and I knew they were still suffering over Addy's disappearance too. So I fell silent, letting our reunion simply calm us all by its very unlikely occurrence in this place we had first met. After long moment, Jase motioned with a thumb tossed over his shoulder behind him at a beat up, rusty old trashcan.


"We brought bait," he said. "Feel like fishing a little, Billy Boy?"


I nodded, smiled a weak, wan smile, and stood, helping him bring the ancient old trashcan closer to the bank of the Vermilion. Dozens of crawfish flipped and flopped around in the bottom of it, stirring deeper memories of our first meeting here. He retrieved a cane pole from my pirogue, handed it to me and we all fetched a crawfish from the can, baited our poles and tossed the baited hooks out into the slow moving, perpetually muddy red water of the river. Our corks moved around a bit then went still, drifting slowly down stream until the lines grew taught.


"Where you been?" Charley asked as we settled into the calm process of waiting for a catfish to find and start fiddling with our bait.


I pointed at the pirogue. "Everywhere I could go in that, and everywhere my legs and feet could go beyond and back to it again," I answered. He and Jase nodded in unison.


"We've been looking too, everywhere we go. Ain't no one else going to look for Addy like we three are. Edmée..." I jerked my attention away from the river at mention of her name. I had not thought about Edmée since I had begun my search for Addy. Jase noticed my reaction.


"You haven't been back to Little Bayou, then?" Jase asked.


I ducked and shook my head in reply, ashamed I had so easily forgotten all about her. About the trust she had placed in me and Addy to preserve and protect her homestead. Then I realized I had subconsciously been avoiding her and Little Bayou on purpose.


"Is she still alive?" I asked.


Jase nodded and chuckled lightly, "Sometimes I think Grand Mémère is invincible. So does she." Then his voice grew serious. "But she knows she's not, and time is her greatest enemy now. She's worried about you, Billy. She needs to talk with you. Before she does die. She wonders why you haven't been back to see her since Addy vanished. She keeps telling us you are her only champion. The only person in the family who can save Little Bayou for future generations."


Champion. That word stung hard. Thirteen months I had ignored everything not directly related to my long, meticulous search in the wilderness for Addy. My friends. My work. Even Edmée, the only great grandmother I would ever be able to call my own kin. And I had ignored Jase and Charley and their families too. The only real friends I had ever had.


I had also ignored my own family, with little regret or remorse, if any at all, for that. They had exhibited no concern at all about Addy's disappearance. Not even trying to fake it, reacting with unveiled relief that she was gone from my life. Disgusted with them, I never have been back home to see any of them.


Something tugged at my line. I waited patiently as Charley and Jase had taught me. If it was a catfish, it would soon suck the crawfish up from the muddy river bottom and make a break for deeper waters with it.


"Is she angry with me for not coming to see her?' I asked.


Jase shook his head. "No. Not in the least. She's just worried about you. Heartbroken and anxious to talk with you about Addy. About you coming to live on Little Bayou now."


I shook my head violently. "I can't stop searching for her, Jase!" I practically yelled at him. "I have to find her!"


Jase didn't flinch one bit at my outburst. Neither did Charley. Forcing my voice down again, I spoke softly. "Can you tell her that? Tell her I can't stop searching for my wife? For the only person who ever really has known me and loved me?"


Charley spoke up sharply at that half-assed statement. "Edmée loves you, Billy. So do we. More than you know."


My line was lightly tugged again. Tempted beyond self control, and angry at myself for being cross with my friends, I yanked hard on the line and whatever was playing with the bait became thoroughly hooked with an unusually hard thunk I felt through the fishing line. Pulling hard, I lifted my catch from the water, feeling no small amount of relief for the distraction from our uncomfortable track of conversation. At the end of the nylon filament fishing line hung two long bones. Two bones I easily recognized as a human shinbone–a tibia–and its smaller counter part–a fibula–still joined together by a small bit of cartilage at the proximal tibiofibular joint.


Suddenly my mind was operating in overdrive with uncanny crystal clarity. Carefully, smoothly swinging the bones over to the bank before the flimsy cartilage of the joint could separate, I gently lowered the bones to a thick patch of grass, slowly set the cane pole down along side them and stood. Charley and Jase got to their feet as well and stood on each side of me, staring at the muddy, red-tinted leg bones now resting on bright, green grass in a V shape relative to one another.


Only a few seconds passed before Charley spoke. "I'll go call the sheriff," he said and started off at a run toward town to do that.


Jase and I stayed put, kneeling together to examine the bones more closely without touching them. Barely breathing, I pointed at the still connected joint end of them and slowly traced down to the unconnected ends, mentally measuring both length and thickness of both bones.


"Jase," I said in a barely audible whisper, but he said what I was about to say before I could say it.


"Looks to be about the right size for her little leg."

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

~ THE TRUE STUFF ~ As soon as we moved to Louisiana, my brothers and I jumped on our bikes and began exploring up and down thickly forested banks of the Vermilion River just south of town. Summertime was in full swing when we arrived there, and one of the first things I noticed as we biked down every dirt road and trail we could find was an interesting vine sporting the most alien looking flowers I had ever seen in my life. I picked one and took it home to ask my mother if she knew what it was. She didn't know but she had already made new friends in town and said she would ask them if they knew. A couple of days later she told me it was called a Purple Passion Flower. I've always had a thing about associating a few of the most unique environments, objects, creatures and plants found in and around each new placed I've lived as thematic to that place due to strong sensations they triggered while living there. In the southwestern corner of Oklahoma, the top thematic elements were the Granite Mountains, a region of broken prairie land called The Breaks where Haystack Mountain stood which also contained a mysterious gypsum karst cave system called Jester Caves, horny toads, red ants, and horrible little goathead stickers all too frequently stepped on while running around barefoot in summertime. South central Oklahoma included the beautiful country of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge where we went camping at every opportunity, bison roaming freely about that refuge, huge black racers living around small farm ponds, and a cherry tree growing in our back yard. In south Texas, they were the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico, fiddler crabs and hermit crabs living in and on those sands, beautifully spotted crab spiders and the intricate webs they spun in the lower branches of unforgettably massive old oak trees shading the back yard. In Louisiana, there were four top theme things exciting my senses while living there: the Vermilion River, Mediterranean Geckos, mud chimney crayfish, and the Purple Passion Flower. The banks of the Vermilion River became my favorite playground. After sunset, prehistoric looking little translucent geckos would emerge from cracks and crevices of the house we lived in to hunt across vertical space of brick walls for both flying and crawling insects of all kinds attracted to porch lights. Some mornings after heavy nighttime rains, we would find tall, new mud chimneys in the bar ditch in front of our house–constructed by industrious crayfish as we slept dry and warm inside. And the Purple Passion Flower was the perfect theme flower for a constantly horny thirteen year old boy now two full years into irresistibly exciting throes of puberty.

~ THE MADE-UP STUFF ~

The passion flower vine on the low, chainlink fence surrounding the restaurant had gone rampant, spreading aggressively over two hot, wet summers since Addy had planted it to completely engulf the ugly fencing all around Addy's Dive. She had hated it–the fence–calling it "industrial", better suited for a junk yard or gravel pit. And at first it had indeed ruined the otherwise inviting, antique ambiance the old renovated building and neighboring buildings had imparted. But after her startup budget had been exhausted on building renovations, the aluminum chainlink fencing, purchased on sale and installed at a deep discount, was all she could afford. I offered to pay for a nicer fence but she had steadfastly refused, telling me for the umpteenth time that I had been right not to get involved in her business as she brought it all together.


"I named it myself after you insisted, Billy," she had said. "And you're right to make me figure this all out on my own. I'll fence it too."


She hadn't said those words argumentatively, but with deep appreciation, understanding I had kept my nose out of it with strong faith she was more than capable of handling it all herself. Now the vine was too thick to see through into the dense, green lawn beyond it on either side, displaying thousands of its bizarre, alien-looking blossoms in various shades of purple and blue with a sprinkling of pure white and deep crimson ones as well.


Absentmindedly gazing at them, it dawned on me that she had planted several varieties of the species to get that dazzling effect. And another dazzling effect of it that I suspect she knew would eventually come about was attraction of butterflies by the hundreds of just as many different kinds as there were kinds of blossoms. Gulf fritillary and Zebra longwing dominated in uncountable numbers as they fluttered from blossom to blossom to feed and unwittingly pollinate. There were Monarchs too, though not as numerous at the moment, and Battus philenor–some with stark, orange and white spots dotting jet black wings, others were black-winged with metallic blue rear edges splashed by white spots. A lot of brilliantly colored postman were flitting around too. A mesmerizing sight to see.


After the vine's first blooming, she had been concerned about ants she noticed were being attracted to the vines, but I had advised her to leave them alone and not spray anything toxic on any plant around the restaurant, telling her the ants would keep the caterpillar populations down, making the vines healthier. "Nature can do its job better than any manmade pesticides," I had said. And it had. The vines were even producing healthy globes of fruit in a few different, pleasantly accentuating shades as well. "Besides, all of those purple passion flowers are making me really really horny. Which is a good thing, no?" to which she had replied with a throaty growl and a harder-than-expected punch to my shoulder.


Getting out of the truck and passing through the double gate of the waist-high cyclone fence whose industrial character was now obscured by spectacular, animated color exuding an equally intense, invisible cloud of sweet, fruity aromas, I walked up to the front door and paused, not sure I was ready to unlock it to go inside. A translucent little gecko had emerged as evening approached and the yellow porch light had automatically switched on, clinging to the wall with its oddly shaped toes, ready to hunt for supper. I hadn't been in the restaurant since closing it over a year ago and had to force myself go inside to prepare for the meeting scheduled to start within the hour. A meeting which might serve to bring out some, if not all, of the truth behind Addy's murder. Truth we desperately needed to expose to save Jase from riding the lightning in Gruesome Gertie's lethal embrace, as determined as he was to do that.


Thinking back to the catalyst that had provided impetus for the plan I was about to set in motion, Edmée's voice whispered in her aged, loving way into my ear again now–just as she had actually whispered into it the day I finally had found courage enough to float back up Little Bayou to see her a few weeks after we found Addy's bones in the Vermilion just south of town. That whisper compelled me to unlock the door and go get everything ready for the meeting. Once inside and busy with preparations, my mind went over everything Edmée had revealed again.


"You know Jase didn't kill Addy, Billy. This I know too for truth," she had told me. "He's taking a fall for you and me. For everyone else too," were her first words when she met me on the front porch of her house. Then she had taken me by the hand and led me inside, poured us both a brandy, and had shared her knowledge with me about what she believed had happened to Addy.


As I tidied up and arranged several tables and chairs in a wide arc at one end of the middle dining room, that conversation began replaying in my head unbidden and irresistible to any conscious effort to silence. I let it rewind to the start on Edmée's front porch.


"He's taking a fall for you and me. For everyone else too," she had whispered into my left ear as she hugged me hard in greeting.


I drew away from Edmée's embrace, looking into her eyes with dim, desperate hope.


"His confession, Billy, is a calculated lie to save you and Charley and so many more."


Blinking, not sure what to say, suddenly overloaded by that statement with questions I wasn't even sure yet how to frame, I waited for her to say more. "Come on, let's go inside and I'll tell you what this old brain of mine has come up with while you were out scouring the bayous for Addy. We'll sip a bit of brandy while we talk."


Back in her living room sanctuary, she motioned for me to pour the drinks and then to come sit beside her. She took a long sip, smacked her lips in appreciation of flavor as much as significance of the moment of our long-overdue reunion, settled back against the settee– gently pulling me back by the shoulder to do the same–and launched into a long, astounding account of what she had found out and what she suspected to be truth of how Addy had died and who could have struck the killing blow that had so violently shattered the right side of her skull.


"Mind you, now, I have no evidence to prove any of what I'm about to tell you. It's all speculation, but it's speculation from thinking long and hard on this matter with a brain older and wiser than any other in this entire state. An old brain that has witnessed so much and surprises even me with its clarity at one hundred and one years of age."


She set her snifter down on the old, handmade table in front of us and took my free hand in both of hers.


"I claim no psychic abilities. None of that metaphysical, hoodoo voodoo bullshit ever washed with me one bit. When they found Addy's skull upstream from where you three fished her leg bones from the river, I had a little vision, Billy. A flash of insight, let's call it, rather than a vision from God or the Devil or some hoot owl perched out on the fencepost or any other such nonsense. A flash of insight derived from making logical connections. The vision was very simple, too."


She squeezed my hand hard to prepare me for what she said next.


"I saw Addy meeting someone along her short walk home after closing her place up that night. Someone she knew and trusted very much. Not a family member from either side–hers or yours–but a long-time friend, so I want you to hold that single simple thought in your mind while I tell you what my old brain then did with that simple, clear vision."


So I did that, and listened without interrupting Edmée with any questions. Her vision made complete sense as she told it, as did her analysis of all that her vision implied. When she finished telling me all of that, she told me something she knew for certain: that Jase had confessed to murdering her to save his friends and family–to save me, especially, and to save Charley as well–from persecution and possible prosecution after we became persons of interest in Sheriff Nolan's investigation when it picked up momentum and progressed at breakneck speed.


After more of Addy's bones, and eventually her skull, had been retrieved from the Vermilion and ensuing forensic odontology had positively identified it as hers, apparently Jase had had a clear, simple but very stark vision of his own. A vision revealing a media feeding frenzy that would rivet attention of news consumers avidly following the story of the murder of a young woman who had just launched a brilliant new and unique career as a restauranteur in a manner which had gained national recognition over a single Mardis Gras holiday weekend.


"Jase is dying anyway, Billy. He has colon rectal cancer and it had already metastasized several weeks before you three reunited at your old fishing spot that day. He told me that before you all ran into each other there. He had intended to tell you that very day about it too, so you would know why he was about to disappear as you had disappeared for so long into the wilderness. The pain of his cancer was eating him up as much as the pain of Addy's disappearance was eating him–all of us–up. When Sheriff Nolan's report hit the county prosecutor's in basket, Jase knew all too well that the media and public would demand quick, harsh justice for Addy's murder. He also knew that without any physical evidence whatsoever available to connect anyone to that crime, that that sorry asshole of a prosecutor would come straight for the three of you since you were the ones who so conveniently found her remains in such an unlikely manner–hooked on a cane pole by pure, unbelievable chance, no less. Too much of a coincidence for him to ignore since he had absolutely nothing else to work with. He saw the opportunity and seized it, as Jase knew he would."


I had just nodded, staying silent, simply acknowledging Jase's assessment of the situation since that is precisely how the county prosecutor had proceeded on the case. The trial had been as brief and farcical as any in the sordid history of the State of Louisiana, and the guilty verdict had come from the typical all-white, all-male jury in a matter of a few hours–all based on Jase's all-too-convincing confession that he had killed Addy out of uncontrollable rage for accepting Edmée's request to serve as successor, with me, to her family trust. Having no alibi for his whereabouts the night of her disappearance (he had been out all night checking and resetting muskrat traps), that and his fervently delivered confession were all the evidence the prosecutor needed to carry the case forward to a conclusion as satisfactory to the media as it was for the public. The nation-wide publicity of Jase's confession, speedy trial and conviction had, in fact, satisfied so thoroughly that the county prosecutor's reputation has soared, making him a household name across the nation. Few people thought of him as anything but heroic in his prosecutorial action on poor Addy's behalf.


"But I know none of you three committed the crime. Jase does too. He's taking the fall for it because he not only has nothing to lose but knows doing so saves you and Charley and saves everyone else in all of our families from the hell about to befall him. The hell he's been living in since he confessed and was locked up. And while he's sitting in that damned jail with Sheriff Nolan and his jinky-assed deputy staff maintaining suicide watch over him–while the state delivers Gruesome Gertie to town for prosecution's big finalé–the pain from his cancer is steadily, relentlessly beating him down, even with the morphine they're pumping into him to try to relieve it so he won't die from a massive heart attack on them and rob the county prosecutor of the final act of his big show, to the point he's looking forward to the relief his execution will bring."


Sitting down on the stool at the front checkout counter–in the blacks-only part of the restaurant–I waited for everyone to arrive, calmly going over the plan and how reopening Addy's Dive might help us all bring out the truth.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

~ THE TRUE STUFF ~ After leaving Louisiana, an amusing, somewhat portentous thing happened shortly after arriving in the west Texas town we would be living in for the next year. As my father was driving us the final mile to the house we would be living in located midway up the 1500 block of North C Street, we passed a small neighborhood park with a duck pond occupying about half of the park's one city block space. A colorfully painted wagon of some sort parked at the south end of the pond caught our eye, and near that wagon a group of young people dressed in brightly colored garb were cavorting around it in a strange manner. Dad turned left onto Cuthbert, slowed the station wagon a little and pointed at them. "Look at the hippies!" he exclaimed with a chuckle. We all laughed as a family at that, and gawked at the cavorting weirdos as we headed north up B Street. We had recently seen the movie "Easy Rider" before leaving Lafayette which had significantly influenced our perception of hippies and their "tune in drop out" lifestyle. Midland was the last place in the world we expected to run across any of them in real life. Dad turned left again onto Douglas Avenue then right onto North C and our new home came into view on the left.
It was one of the coolest houses we lived in, having been custom designed by the architect owner, Mr. Howard. It had recessed lighting illuminating the living room in a pleasant, indirect glow, a double fireplace with one side in the living room and the other side in the master bedroom. It even had a pool table in its back game room. Two pecan trees stood in the front yard which dropped copious amounts of both Burkett and Western Schley pecans which we gathered and shelled that fall then sold door-to-door to people in the neighborhood to raise money for buying Christmas gifts. Shortly after we had settled in, it was time to return to the monotonous grind in public school. But that year I became friends with a group of kids who were all involved in the local children's community theater group called The Pickwick Players. I met them all through a kid named Scott after telling him about the bunch of hippies we had seen cavorting around a painted wagon down at the neighborhood park with the big duck pond. Scott grinned at that and said "Yeah, that was us." Within the first week after meeting Scott and his friends, they found out I played guitar and talked me into going to the theater after school one day and audition to perform with them in a new play planned for production that winter. So I did and somehow was accepted and immediately recruited by the group director, Ed Graczyk, as a musician performing in a new play he had written called "Electric Folderol".
Dad sort of flipped out when I came home that day and declared I had just joined the Pickwick Players, the very same bunch of hippies we had seen at the park upon arrival in town, but he let me continue rehearsing and performing with them for the duration of the play's production. And when the play was about to wrap up, my new friends asked if I would ask my parents to host the post-production party at our house. I seriously doubted my parents would go for that and said so at the meeting with everyone at the community theater. Mr. Graczyk asked why and I frankly told him my father thought he was gay. Then I immediately regretted saying such a stupid thing–which I did a lot of in those days–but Mr. Graczyk and everyone else at the meeting just laughed and he replied "I'll try to act as butch as I can during the party." So I asked my parents who shocked me by saying, without a bit of hesitation, they would host the party. They went to see the closing performance of the play and after it was over, everyone came to our house for the party. My parents seemed to enjoy it, especially when the entire cast went out into the back yard and performed a spoof of the play. I thoroughly enjoyed it too, so much so that I forgot to watch Mr. Graczyk to see how one acted "butch". It was an unexpected, magical thing that happened way out there in the dry, flat scrublands of West Texas, and my family seemed to expand our tolerance for strange people–which all of the Pickwick Players most definitely were–as a result of that experience. I had a lot of fun being a part of the children's theater group and learned some interesting things about that strange branch of the performing arts.


~ THE MADE-UP STUFF ~

Kicking off the meeting as soon as the former staff of Addy's Dive had arrived and taken seats in the middle dining room, I thanked them all for coming. Then I told them I intended to reopen the restaurant under the same name for a trial period spanning five days around the upcoming Mardi Gras celebration. Everyone there was enthusiastic about it and without needing many more people to staff up for it, we all agreed to proceed with the reopening.


I had invited the owners of Leroux's to the meeting and Chef Beauchamp as well who no longer was working at Leroux's due to undisclosed personal matters. Leroux's had a new head chef they were very happy with so I asked Chef Beauchamp if he could run the kitchen for duration of the trial reopening, telling him I could afford to pay him fairly well for the five day event. He agreed, on condition that if we did decide to continue operating after the trial reopening that we be prepared to hire another full-time chef.


"I'll be happy to help you get it back up and running," he had stated when we could talk in private out in the back yard of the restaurant during a break in the meeting, "but I can't stay on after the fifth day."


He did not elaborate and I didn't press him on the matter, just very happy he would do as much as he could to help me try to get the place up and running again. I had heard rumors he was drinking and doing drugs, but it was just that. A rumor. I knew finding a good chef would not be easy on such short notice for what might be only temporary employment at the restaurant. I thanked him for his generosity and we headed back inside.


When everyone returned to the middle dining room after the break and were seated again, I told them that the grand reopening event would entail a five-act mystery theater dinner show with one act being performed each evening of the five days the restaurant would be open for the trial. Carly asked what sort of theme the dinner show would follow. I told her it would be a murder mystery theme and would involve every employee and dining customer who wanted to participate.


The murder mystery theme part made most everyone there visibly blanch, considering how Addy had disappeared and was brutally murdered. A few of them looked at the person sitting adjacent to them, shocked. I could read it in their eyes.


How can he even consider such a thing?


What the hell is he thinking?


So I moved on without pause to keep them from freaking out before I could even get the plan rolling.


"I'll also be hiring some friends from the School of Music & Performing Arts I got to know while we all were attending college to do script writing and provide professional directing, acting and musical performance talent for the show. They'll handle the lead roles and rehearsals. Staff participation will not require a great deal of rehearsal time, just a little light study to know what to expect from the professional performers as the show opens and progresses. Nothing for any of you too worry about. I've been told that even accidental flub ups can be handled by the performers so they seem scripted."


That bit of news made everyone perk up a bit. I watched them all closely, taking note of how they each reacted to that announcement.


"These performers are all pros, now, and some of them you may have seen on TV shows or even in movies. They're sort of strange...well, to be honest a few are really strange, but they know their craft and will provide polish and flare we amateurs just would not be able to pull off on our own."


Everyone seemed to like the idea. So I proceeded to lay down some details, handing out a preliminary program for the event, including a menu so Chef Beauchamp would know what to expect in his duties. I kept the menu simple but attractive. Nothing but creole dishes, especially dishes he was good at preparing. His reaction seemed positive as well. The show program wasn't as simple. In fact, it was rather complex, which worried me some. But that was part of the plan and as scary as it was to think about how it was going to unfold, I trusted Edmée's wisdom and judgment, agreeing to execute the show plan exactly as she suggested. I adjourned the meeting by letting everyone know we would begin work the following week and thanked them for all coming and committing to the effort.


"Addy would be pleased to see you all here tonight, so willing and eager to help bring her dream back to life." Looking at Chef Beauchamp, I gave him a nod of appreciation for his professional commitment. "Chef Beauchamp has agreed to run the kitchen. For this, I want to express special thanks. With Addy no longer here at the helm, this ship would sink fast. You'll be instrumental in efforts to relaunch and keep it afloat for the reopening event."


A solemn murmur of tacit agreement coursed through the rest of the group as everyone shared a nod and a smile of approval. Chef Beauchamp lowered his head in modest acknowledgement of their trusting acceptance.


Phase one of a crazy plan was underway.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

~ THE TRUE STUFF ~ At the time I was living in Louisiana in 1969, a young woman named Mignon Faget was starting up her own clothing and jewelry design studio in New Orleans. She liked to design with natural forms like seashells and sand dollars. Within a year she turned her focus to jewelry design and in 1970 she created a collection based on shells–including sand dollars, moonsnail shells, and turtle shells–she found and gathered while exploring inlets and marshes of south Louisiana and walking beaches of the Gulf Coast. Also incorporating natural pearls into her designs in this first collection she called Sea. People loved her unusual jewelry and her little startup design studio flourished. In 1971 she moved it into a small double-cottage on Dublin Street in downtown New Orleans. In 1973 she created the Louisiana collection which incorporated the red bean and fleur de lis in many pieces. Natural forms and cultural elements of Louisiana became a hallmark of her popular designs. A design she created in the mid 1980s called The Gumbo Necklace was a wonderful interpretation of that ubiquitous seafood dish. Now in her eighties, she is still operating her studio today.

~ THE MADE-UP STUFF ~

Waking with a start and a barely stifled scream in the wee hours the morning after the reopening meeting with staff at Addy's Dive, echos of the nightmare persisted all too firmly and I could not fall back into restful sleep. I had been dreaming of our wedding at Edmée's–specifically about the gifting phase of it, and in particular about one special gift that Addy had cherished above all others.


Besides the superbly hand-crafted, antique pirogue Edmée had given to us, we received several more stunningly thoughtful and beautiful wedding gifts from everyone attending the wedding. None of them were extravagant, all very simple and inexpensive. Many were handmade. Yet they were all clearly from the heart.


Two of the most meaningful of them had been a hand-bound book of recipes Chef Beauchamp had given to Addy for her to use preparing dishes in her new restaurant. The other we received from the owners of Leroux's. The black pearl Addy had been showing to me the night of my high school graduation celebration.


The matriarch of their restaurateuring family, Marie, had placed the loose pearl in a simple white box about an inch and a half on all sides, firmly nestled into the top of a cotton ball and tied the top of the box down with a short length of thin, gold-foiled twine. Addy had gasped when she opened the little box and saw the black pearl.


"While you're in New Orleans for your honeymoon, go to Dublin Street and ask for Katriane Desmarais. Someone there will show you where to find her. I've already told her you are coming to see her with a special pearl. When you get there, tell them Marie sent you and then show this pearl to her. She'll know exactly what to do to turn it into something exquisite you can wear. I've already mailed a deposit to pay for whatever it is she creates with it. We're old friends, so I suspect she'll tear up that check, but she's the one you want to go to for this. We used to roam the gulf coast searching for shells and sand dollars and other natural stuff she likes to use in her jewelry making. She's going to love making something for you with this pearl."


Addy could not contain her tears and I have to admit I almost let loose a brief rain of my own. We did as Marie suggested, handing the pearl to Katriane without specifying anything for her to do to it. And when we returned to her little studio on Dublin Street at the end of our week-long honeymoon, she took us downstairs to the basement and brought the piece she had created out for us to see.


The pearl was mounted in the center of a piece of polished oyster shell roughly shaped like a heart with a black, leather cord threaded through a hole drilled across a thick protrusion in the back of the shell fragment slightly above and behind the pearl so the pendant would hang nicely at a slightly canted angle.


"I didn't shape the oyster shell into a heart," Katriane had pointedly told us. "I never do that. I use pieces of nature as I find them, only polishing them enough to remove the patina of grime coating them. I found this piece of shell years ago in the shucker's big shell heap behind Marie's restaurant. So the only thing about it that isn't from Leroux's is the leather cord."


Addy cherished it, never going out without wearing it. She even wore it every day to work at her restaurant. When Carly and Pete, and the rest of Addy's Dive staff had been interviewed about her disappearance, they had confirmed that she was wearing it the night she vanished.


Shaking the memory out of my head and getting up with a grunt and a fart, I set to work preparing for the next meeting planned for the reopening. Within a couple of hours, the small troop of performing arts professionals would arrive at Addy's Dive so they could begin rehearsing for the show. We had two weeks to get ready. I had no doubt in my mind they would make the show unforgettable for everyone participating in it. My only doubt was whether it would have the effect desired to achieve our goal of exposing Addy's murderer, who Edmée was certain would not be able to resist participating in every single act.


"The murderer is sick, Billy. And that sickness is what we'll play upon. It will work. You'll see," she had assured me, but she wouldn't tell me who she was so certain the killer was. "I can't tell you that. Under any circumstances. I'm sorry to keep you in the dark, Billy, but if I do tell, you won't be able to conduct the mystery dinner shows without alerting the murderer of your tricky intentions, and all of our effort will be for naught."


After showering and shaving, I walked over to the restaurant and prepared for the meeting with my friends from college due to arrive at any time–a strange lot I always thoroughly enjoyed being with. They hadn't seen me since Addy's murder, but they had all followed the news articles about it as they had trickled out in regional newspapers and over airways. A few of them had followed the story on national news media as long as that had lasted, which was about two days. But they told me they had all stayed up on it through their own grapevines, concerned for my safety when I had disappeared into the wilderness for more than a year.


When I called and told them I required their professional help, giving them the one-minute elevator pitch to avoid wasting their valuable time, not a single one balked, all delighted for the opportunity to use their prodigious performance arts skills to help a still-grieving friend in dire need. Denny, a character actor of a most unusual kind, had been excited to come help out when we spoke on the phone about it. He tended to talk a lot when excited about a project, making it easy to tell he was genuinely ramped up about this one.


"Yeah, sure, Billy! I don't have any pressing commitments, so you can count on me. Sounds like fun. I've never acted in a mystery dinner show. Always wanted to. Will it be mostly improv or scripted? I've done a lot of improv since finishing college. I like doing improv, but if it's scripted can I write my own lines?"


I told him I would think about it, actually already having decided he would be the best script writer for the task. And when he arrived first at Addy's Dive, I told him so right away. He was still thanking me when Keller walked into the restaurant, flouncing up to me in full character–of whom, I had no idea and didn't care–laying a huge kiss on me, full on the lips, and proceeded to do the same to Denny.


"Good gawd, I've missed you two hunks," she said, striking an alluring pose for us to admire. And we did that, grinning at her, loving her even more than we had in college. To be clear, Denny and I are not hunks. Far from it, I am as geeky as a computer nerd/environmental scientist can possibly be. And I chose Denny to play his part because he shares my undeniable geekiness, but Keller never seemed to notice or care–very much as Addy had not cared what I looked like. With critical glances around the room, then going to the middle and back dining rooms to take a good look, she returned with a peeved expression on her face. "Am I early? I hate being early. So unstylish. Got any gin?"


I mixed her a stiff gin and tonic with lime, drew a cold draft beer for Denny who wanted a slice of lime with it too, and grabbed an orange juice for myself. We reminisced as others arrived one at a time, strung out over a span of two hours, each joining right in on the conversation upon arrival as seamlessly as any professional actors and actresses will when playing their parts in a well-directed play, replete with hammy body language and facial expressions.


And that's precisely what they were doing, I suddenly realized after they were all together. I had mailed a show synopsis that Edmée and I had drafted together which included second drafts of all five acts to each of them and they had all obviously studied it thoroughly. Now they were practically–no, actually–auditioning for parts right before my eyes and ears, improvising in rich details for the show as well but totally based on the synopsis they had received in the mail. And that was both comforting and highly productive because as they did their different bits, I flipped open my notepad and started making notes for script edits and stage movements on the spot, all based on what I was seeing them doing–in character–right there in front of me. They were even dramatically walking about the restaurant and striking theatrical poses to experiment with stage move possibilities. I had seen them doing this as seniors when they had written and produced one of their own original plays in college as a team. Keller was so in to character that she was nonchalantly plucking up and using items routinely employed in the restaurant business as props while she performed her part as a waitress. I wondered if she had worked in restaurants before, her stage moves and prop usage were so smooth and convincing.


I kept taking notes and they kept performing, working through all five acts to a delightfully improvised and funny conclusion, upon which they all turned and cast a critical glare at me. I squirmed in my chair, uncomfortable being scrutinized so severely. Jamie broke the silence.


"So William," she said, drawing out my proper first name with emphasis she knew I hated. "We sense something more than a mere mystery dinner show is up here."


Qunicy stepped up beside her and nodded agreement, crossing his arms with a flourish before jutting his chin hard in my direction. "I agree. So spill the beans, Billy Boy. What kind of con have you hired us all to pull here?"


I flinched at his use of Billy Boy. No one had called me that since Jase had been locked up in the county jail. Gruesome Gertie was due to arrive and do her gruesome duty sometime in March, less than two months from now. Pushing those thoughts back, I resisted telling them, not sure what effect it would have on their commitment to the show. They didn't budge. So I did spill the beans. At least the beans I had to spill, telling them that an advisor had a good idea who the murderer is but wouldn't share that suspicion with me.


Cokes (we called him that because he seemed to survive on nothing but carbonated soft drinks) asked why she wouldn't tell me who the suspect was.


"She's convinced the killer will go to ground if they sense our ploy and we'll never find out who done it."


Tess nodded sagely. "Probably so, probably so. And if we execute this con just right, with the right authorities watching or at least within earshot" she observed, "your great grandmother-in-law is convinced we might just trip the perp up enough to make them sing their song of guilt without having to apply any direct physical threat."


"That's about it in a nutshell," I answered.


Pamela was first to sit down at the table, taking the chair beside me. Then the rest followed suit. "So now that you've seen our rough interpretation of the synopsis, do you still think it will work?" she asked.


"I do think it will," I replied. "If that was a rough interpretation, the polished performance will leave no doubt in my mind at all. And there's a reason I feel that way. Because as crazy as it sounds, everything in the synopsis is based on things that really happened. On real people and real events. All truth. It's not just a story yanked out of my ass for fun in hopes of raking in large tips at curtain call. It's the story of living people doing real-life stuff with, for and to each other."


Keller's eyebrows scaled her forehead in the same instant it took her to blink her eyes once. "You mean to tell me that scene two in act one where some horny teenager follows a waitress around on hands and knees, sniffing at her like a randy goat and fondling her instep like some Lester the Molester actually happened?"


I nodded, sheepishly. "Uh huh," I replied. "That horny teenager was me, and it was Addy I was crawling around after, sniffing at her and foot fondling."


Denny whistled a long, low tone that steadily dropped in pitch. "Well I'll be diddled in my doo doo dumper. Truth is stranger than fiction!"


Cringing at his crude but apt descriptive lead-in to that observation, I looked into each of the seven pairs of eyes looking back at me now without a blink one from any to see if I had just lost them. It did not appear I had, but I asked anyway.


"So are you all in on this...con?"


They rose from their seats and advanced toward me so suddenly I drew back a little. That set them all laughing raucously while they gathered around close to slap me on the back, muss up my hair, hug me (Keller kissed me big and wet again), shake me by the shoulder, punch me in the shoulder and so on to show their unflinching support.


"Oh we're in," Keller said, still holding both of my blushing cheeks in her hot hands, kneading at them suggestively. "You can't keep any of this crew out now that we know what the gig is really all about!"

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

~ THE TRUE STUFF ~ A particularly enjoyable part of being in a children's theatre group production–or in any kind of performance arts event, for that matter–was opening night. The excitement was palpable, and as the moment for curtains to open approached, we all became hyper-ramped on adrenaline such that focus on our roles in the upcoming performance were so intense I always had to resist an urge to shout and jump up and down in place backstage like a little kid about to take a first ride on a very scary rollercoaster. Fear (taking the form of jitters from unshakeable stage fright), and fun (ensuing in a rush as soon as fear had been faced and accepted) were about to merge in an undeniably tumultuous, heady mix which would not subside until the next morning after sleeping it off. Even then, subsequent days, weeks and sometimes even months and years carried so many vivid memories of the performance–as long as it went well–desire to do another production as soon as possible swelled and persisted.


~ THE MADE-UP STUFF ~

Middle dining room reservation seats for all five evenings of Addy's Dive reopening event were completely booked within three days after public announcement went out to a handful of local newspapers. Addy's unsolved murder is why, and I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but those small ads proliferated across the state like wildfire and were now rapidly spreading across the nation. The story of Addy's disappearance and subsequent murder were prime fare for news addicts. I finally had to set up an automated answering service to turn away more callers seeking reservations in the middle room. I was keeping the front and back rooms empty for use as performance stage areas during the show, which we had decided would be a walking show–sort of a town-wide tour for customers. No children were allowed to attend the show. It had evolved into something just too fast, intense, mobile and bawdy for tender young feet, legs, ears and minds to endure. This had been Quincy's idea, observing that children would distract customers from the show too much, possibly even having a negative impact on achieving its real goal–exposing the identity of Addy's murderer.


The majority of reservations were for adult members of Addy's side of the family. Edmée had shamed many of them into going, wanting them there for several reasons, not the least of which was to serve as red herrings in the mystery plot. The rest were for people who had never before dined at the restaurant and only eight seats for return customers. I made sure Carly knew who the return customers were so she could seat them in the best spots in the middle room for the show. I also kept a pair of seats open for my parents and two more for Edmée and Charley. Whether my parents came to dine and see the show was anyone's guess. Edmée was sure they wouldn't turn down the invitation, especially since their reservation included a free meal and cocktails. She advised me to provide free drinks for any adult connected to Addy through her own family or through mine. She also wanted me to make sure Chef Beauchamp had ready access to some alcohol.


"He's been hitting the bottle hard, Billy. I've good verification of that. So let's make sure he can have a snort or two during the show so he can cope."


"But won't that raise the risk of him cooking badly, mucking up customer orders?" I asked.


"Yes, but I doubt it will be anything severe. He's a professional. Most of what he does is dole out tasks to his cooking crew. They'll help prevent any catastrophic foulups leaving the kitchen."


The first act of the show began on time at precisely eight o'clock pm as Scene One unfolded before diners without announcement or fanfare when Keller flounced into the dining room from the kitchen carrying a small jelly far full of fake pearls. Only one pearl was black, sitting on top of the rest. She made a beeline to Denny's table and began her act, flirting unabashedly as she delivered her lines. It was such a great performance, I had some trouble dealing with a few flashbacks from the time it had happened for real. We had decided not to have them do their introductions to each other as Addy and I had in real life. It added nothing to the point of the scene.


"Well, well, well," Keller spoke her first line loud and clear for everyone in the dining room to hear and take note of, signaling to all that the murder mystery show had begun. "I see you actually finished off that huge meal you ordered, two dozen on the half shell and the fisherman's platter after those!"


Denny stared at Keller with such an expression of deep, unfettered love and devotion, it was hard to remember he was acting. "I'm a growing boy," he answered with hammed up inflection of both voice and body language.


Keller then leaned down close and whispered into his ear just loudly enough to carry out to every corner in the now otherwise silent dining room "Chef is bringing you a special desert next," she said and then stealthily licked Denny's left ear to make him blush a deep, crimson. I almost laughed out loud at that trick. She hadn't done it during any rehearsal, although I had mentioned it would be nice if Denny could blush on cue–to which he had replied he wasn't a "freaking miracle-working machine". I now realized Keller's smirky wink at me when he said that had been her way of telling me she had a plan, and the effect of that plan's execution was superb. The audience chuckled and a few of them applauded with delight at the acting skill they were witnessing within the first few seconds of the opening scene, completely unaware that poor Denny was now struggling to stay on beam in his role.


Everyone in the middle room had stopped their conversations and watched with wrapt attention as the beginning of the tragic love story unfolded in high theatrical form before them. I stood behind the bar beneath the signature cypress knee cluster carving of alligator and turtles sunning together in harmony that Ida had created for Addy, sipping a glass of cold sparkling water, watching people's reactions closely. Edmée sat at her little table for two with Charley at the right front corner of the room beside a window watching reactions as well. She had been at the dress rehearsal the day before and knew how Act I would be performed, except for