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.
~ 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.
~ 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."
~ 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 speculatio