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 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.
~ 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.
~ 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!"
~ 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 Keller's improvised ear lick, so she devoted all of her attention watching customer's reactions.
Keller slowly lowered the jar of pearls to the table top beside Denny, relishing the bright, crimson tone of his face so slow to subside, and just as Addy had done with me, she lifted his hand and carefully placed the black pearl between his thumb and forefinger. "What do you think?" she asked, throatily.
Denny stammered and stuttered "You're...I mean...it's a b...b..b...beautiful pearl. I mean, so are you...b..b..b..beautiful, that is." He was overdoing it. My stammer was nothing so severe, but it was great theatrics for the show.
Gazing into Denny's eyes with lips slightly parted, holding onto his hand for the perfect amount of time to maximize effect, Keller finally released it and Denny moved to put the black pearl back into the jar without looking at what he was doing–his adoring gaze locked on Keller's sultry, half-lidded eyes–very convincingly knocking the jar of pearls over. His timing was impeccable as the pearls fanned out across the table a bit before he tried to stop them with his arms just as I had done so long ago, allowing plenty to roll off the table and go bouncing across the floor.
While this scene had unfolded to this point, Pamela and Tess had come out of the kitchen in costume, taking their positions in the room to act as waitresses in the scene. And as soon as Keller and Denny dropped to the floor on hands and knees to retrieve pearls, they moved to do the same while actively encouraging the rest of the diners to also get down on their hands and knees and join in on the effort. Laughing and jabbering away at each other, all of the guests except my parents were soon down on the floor, crawling around hunting for pearls. I watched my mother with no small amount of discomfort as she glared at me, fully aware of what was going on. I could tell she didn't like it one bit. My father was looking back and forth between the two of us, trying to figure what was going on with this re-enactment of my high school graduation party at Leroux's, and why his wife now was glaring at me with a murderous look of hatred.
I stifled a smile, returning her glare with an innocent repose. So far so good.
Keller took off toward the juke box at the back of the dining room–a prop which was actually the very same jukebox from Leroux's back porch, lent to us by Marie for use in the show. Denny very theatrically crawled behind her, breathing deeply through his nose, making subtle head movements clearly indicating his interest in Keller's finely sculpted derriere a bit before reaching out and fondling her left foot. Keller stopped and turned with a look of murder almost matching that still frozen on my mother's face and still directed at me, then she smiled sweetly and lovingly at him. He pretended to pick up the black pearl, which was now actually who knew where, from a point beside her ankle and handed a copy he had palmed to Keller.
From the other side of the room, Tess began singing.
Oh, where have you been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Oh, where have you been, Charming Billy?
I have been to seek a wife, she's the joy of my life...
Pamela got to her feet, announcing that all of the pearls had been recovered and thanked everyone for helping out, urging them to get up and take their seats again, but not before Cokes came out of the kitchen dressed in a chef's costume with a comically oversized toque sitting atop his head at a perilous angle. Followed by three actual waitstaff carrying fully loaded desert trays. He paused as we had rehearsed the close of the scene, his mouth hanging agape, taking in the strange sight of people still crawling around on the floor before announcing "Creme Brulee for everyone...".
He left out the part about the deserts being on the house, though. Our budget was squeaky tight until the day's receipts were tallied and deposited at the bank.
I spotted Chef Beauchamp watching from the swinging doors of the kitchen. He had a strange look on his face I couldn't figure out, possibly insulted by Cokes' cartoonish portrayal of him. Glancing at Edmée and Charley, I saw they were both watching Chef with intense focus as well. Then Chef turned abruptly and disappeared back into the kitchen. Charley and Edmée moved their heads close to each other and whispered back and forth without looking my way. Edmée's instructions not to inform Chef Beauchamp, or anyone else not in the performing crew, had grated some. I didn't like the idea of pissing him off as I'm sure he was now. Edmée saw me watching her and returned a tiny nod of approval that I had kept my promise to her.
Keller and Denny stood, gazing for a moment into each others eyes in dramatic silence before separating–Keller exiting stage right across the dining room and into the kitchen while Denny returned to his seat at the table–ending Scene One of the first act. Applauding and laughing as they stood almost in unison, the audience members clamored to their feet, back to their tables and settled into their seats, taking sips at their drinks before digging into the delicious deserts now being distributed around the room.
When it appeared most everyone was finished with their desert, waitstaff moved into the dining room and efficiently refilled water glasses before exiting again. At the moment the last of them had stepped back into the kitchen, Pamela emerged from the back dining room, pausing for effect beside the "WHITES ONLY" sign mounted on the wall beside the doorway to begin Scene Two of Act I by very loudly shouting a single word.
The audience froze–every single one of them, including my mother–and jerked their attention from whatever it was they were focused on at their table or elsewhere around the dining room toward Pamela. She waited three tics before moving on with her key performance.
Now wearing clothing, jewelry, hairstyle and cosmetics a middle-aged mother might favor, she stomped noisily and with gobs of angry body language toward Denny, exuding an expression of unbridled fury on every square inch of her face. I was impressed with the synergistic effect of her get up and acting.
"You ungrateful little shit!" she shouted again, still very loudly at Denny. "How dare you ruin this party with such disgusting behavior!" she continued.
Denny's face was a mask of innocence. This hadn't happened during the party at Leroux's as it was being portrayed here now, but it was a vitally important act for the storyline.
Pamela stopped within hand reach beside him, punching her clinched fists on ledges of her hips. "Just what the hell do you think you are doing with that nigger waitress?" she demanded to know, practically spitting the derogative at him–as scripted from words my mother had actually spoken to me at home after our return from the high school graduation party at Leroux's.
The audience gasped audibly as one. Even though it was 1981 and political correctness had not yet become widespread by any measure, the diners were clearly shocked by what they were witnessing now, unsure where it was coming from, or why. Even more unsure how to react. They kept their eyes on the actors but I knew they would soon begin looking around at each other for some clue as to what they should do next.
Pamela pulled back with exaggerated motion and swung her open hand at Denny's face. He nimbly grabbed Pamela's wrist, stopping the slap mid-swing. Uproar from the audience was instantaneous as they shifted in their seats and murmured disapproval. A few men moved to stand up. Denny expertly quelled the uproar with a strong but calm and cold-as-ice voice, fully in character as he held firm to Pamela's wrist.
"I'm sorry, Mother. Do I owe you something? An explanation for something? An apology for your raging racism?"
Pamela wrenched her wrist free from Denny's grip. "You owe me respect!" she replied with more venom than she had ever expressed in rehearsals. She was really getting into the spirit of the scene. "I'm your mother and I will not have you chasing after such ..." she paused, only for half a second before adding"colored town trash!" still completely incapable of behaving rationally.
Watching the audience closely, I saw the attitude shift as clearly as a lightning bolt flashing mere inches away from my nose. Hatred for Billy's mother was locked and loaded. We had them.
"I'm going to ask her to marry me," Denny told Pamela.
"You'll do no such goddamned thing, William!"
Denny stood, wiping his hands on his napkin as though he were wiping away horrible filth picked up while grasping Pamela's wrist.
"Oh yes I am," he replied with a calm, cool smile. "I'll be eighteen in two weeks time. I can do anything I want to do without having to get your permission–or Dad's– ever again for the rest of my life. It's my life. I'm going to live the rest of it my way."
Tossing the napkin down on the table, he turned and exited the middle dining room into the front dining room, letting his hand slide over the COLOREDS ONLY sign mounted on the wall beside that doorway as he strode through with conviction.
I started breathing again as Pamela made her way safely back into the back dining room and Scene Two of Act I ended.
The diners kept their seats but all immediately erupted in loud, animated conversation. I stepped from behind the bar and spoke as clearly and calmly as I could without failing to make my voice carry to the back of the middle dining room.
"Ladies and gentlemen," I said more gently than commanding. They turned and listened.
"Please follow me for the final scene of tonight's first act in our performance of "Abbeville Pearls - A Murder Mystery" I requested with grim resolve and waved them toward the front dining room door with palm turned up and a slight bow, indicating I wanted them to all enter before I followed. They complied, each and every one of them casting a stern look at me as they filed in and took a seat at bare tables except for one already occupied by Denny, Quincy and Cokes where they were now sitting, nodding and murmuring as if deep in conversation. Cokes had donned makeup and costume closely matching Jase's appearance. Quincy was playing the part of Charley now. So focused on the upcoming scene, I failed to notice my parents had not left their seats in the middle dining room. Edmée and Charley had noticed, though, and paused to watch them for a moment before moving into the front dining room to take their seats.
When the diners were all seated, the trio raised their voices so they would carry throughout the room.
"You should have seen it, Jase." Denny said to Cokes. Cokes listened quietly without interrupting, rubbing at his chin and cheeks thoughtfully, just as Jase had actually done when I had first told him about my feelings for Addy. The diners all listened quietly too as Denny rambled on about this and that and the other regarding their interactions at Leroux's and how magical it was before finally falling silent, looking expectantly at Cokes and Quincy. They just looked at Denny, expressionless.
Dead silence occupied every cubic inch of space in the front–COLOREDS ONLY–dining room as the audience waited expectantly, even eagerly now, for the next line to be delivered.
Cokes leaned back in his chair, looking Denny up and down critically for a moment before asking "You know that's going to be trouble, right?"
Denny nodded gravely–just as I had–and said, "I can't help that, Jase. But I can't stop myself. I can't help loving Addy."
"You not helpin' her by loving her, whiteboy!" Cokes yelled with a hard slap of both hands on the tabletop. Charley scowled as Denny stood and fled from the room out the front door into the night. Then he and Jase rose and followed.
Again I offered a palm-up wave to urge the audience outside for the final part of the scene. Once outside, they watched in silence as Scene Three ended, bring Act I to a conclusion.
Denny was striding away through the double cyclone gate toward the street. Cokes yelled at him from the front yard of the restaurant. "So you just gonna run away from shit like that, Billy Boy? You can't take the heat, how you gonna keep it off of Addy?"
Denny stopped cold and after a long moment, turned and strode back into the yard to face Cokes. "You did that on purpose, didn't you?"
Cokes nodded with an expression of compassion I wouldn't have believed possible.
"Yes I did," he said, "and I'm sorry I had to be the one to do it, but goddammit Billy, you know good goddamn well the world is going to do it to you and to Addy from the moment you join together as husband and wife. The entire goddamned world!"
"We'll go someplace where people don't judge like that!" Denny shouted.
"Oh yeah? And where in this world is that place?" Cokes asked.
Denny had no reply. Cokes laid his arm over Denny's shoulder and they walked toward the front gate together. "Okay. I understand, Billy. Better than you may ever know. So now what we gotta do is figure out a way for you and Addy to get together without anyone knowing about it. Someplace safe and secret so you two can figure out if you both really love each other so much," Cokes was saying as they walked together out into the street and across it out of earshot–staying on script and in character.
The diners watched them walking away as their voices faded to murmurs and they disappeared around a corner down an unlit alleyway, ending Scene Three and bringing Act I to a close. Then they all turned and stared at me. I stood still and quiet, feeling relaxed but having no idea what they might do, halfway expecting to be mobbed and lynched on the spot.
A woman about the same age as my mother but dark skinned stepped forward first, tears spilling from her eyes. "Thank you, Billy," she said, simply and directly, and turned to leave. More of the diners moved close and did the same, shaking my hand with gratitude. One old man almost as dark skinned as Jase grabbed my hand and squeezed it firmly without shaking it, looking me in the eyes with what appeared to be as much respect as awe.
"You..." he started to say then stopped. "I'm glad you're doing this, sir. It's long overdue and I'm glad it's you doing it for Addy's honor. And I know it's not just her you're doing it for," he added. "She and so many others of similar fate deserve to be honored for being born and living and...loving one another..." he stopped again, then nodded. "Well, you understand. I'll be back tomorrow evening, sir. Thank you for this. I can't say it's been delightful, but I am honored to have been here to see it. I need to see the rest."
He turned and left through the front gate, plucking a blossom from the vine and lifting it to his nose. The remainder of diners did much as he had; shaking my hand, looking deep into my eyes, saying a few words of thanks and encouragement to carry on, and making a promise to be back the next evening.
When everyone was gone, I went back inside the restaurant to find Edmée, Charley and Chef Beauchamp standing at the front picture window where they had been watching. They said nothing. Charley nodded at the doorway to the middle dining room.
"Your parents are still here," he said.
Edmée nodded ever so slightly at me, extreme concern in charge of every aged muscle in her face and eyes. I knew what she would say and I nodded back so she didn't have to try. I went directly on into the middle dining room but went behind the bar and opened a cold bottle of beer instead of going to my parent's table. It was time for them to come to me.
My mother had somehow maintained enough composure to keep her seat in the middle dining room throughout the remainder of Act I, listening to Scene Three in its entirety without coming into the front dining room or outside to watch the actors perform. They had delivered their lines with typical stage volume and presence. She didn't have to see the scene played out. The dialog between Denny and Cokes was more than enough for her. My father had stayed by her side.
I stood at the bar, directly beneath sunning alligator with chin resting on red-eared sliders, holding no particular expression on my face or anywhere else on my body. I just stood there, looking at them. Waiting and watching. Chef Beauchamp had gone into the kitchen and now stood in the kitchen doorway, his body holding the swinging doors open, watching all of us, swaying a little even though he grasped the door frame with one hand. He had obviously found the bottle of bourbon and had imbibed no small amount of it after his shift had ended upon sending out waitstaff to serve his signature desert.
My mother finally rose to her feet, swaying a bit herself–possibly from shock. She and my father approached the bar together.
"You bastard," she said, quietly, never taking her gaze from mine.
"Are you telling me a truth, Mother?" I asked with a meaningful, look of disdain at my father. His face hardened and I braced for him to punch mine with great force, but he didn't do that. I could see with a slow shift of light in his eyes that he knew I was right to be doing what I was doing with the mystery dinner event. He wanted to tell me so and I suddenly knew my father was not a racist, as his spouse most certainly was. He reached across the bar and placed his hand on my shoulder.
"See you tomorrow evening, Son." and they left the building.
Chef Beauchamp moved to stand in the doorway between the front and middle dining rooms with the bottle of bourbon gripped by the neck in his left fist. I hadn't noticed before now that he was a lefty. Maybe he was ambidextrous. I thought he was going to leave without saying anything but he pushed away from the door with his free hand and lurched toward me, placing the bottle on the bar top with a thunk. He did not release his grip on it.
"Hell of a show, Billy," he mumbled with pronounced slur, patting me on the shoulder in mimicry of my father's gesture. "Hell of a show. See you tomorrow," and he too exited the building without further ado.
Edmée and Charley came into the room and took a seat at the bar. "We locked the front door, Billy," Charley said.
I poured a nice brandy into a snifter for Edmée, drew a cold draft for Charley and we sat and talked into the night about what had just transpired in Addy's Dive.
~ THE TRUE STUFF ~ Three weeks before I was born, a touching movie titled "Good-bye, My Lady" was released to theaters. I wouldn't see the movie until I was nine when it finally aired on local television. I was strongly influenced by it and still am every time I watch it. My mother was moved by the story too, and by the time I was twelve, she had adopted her first basenji from an animal shelter in Houston. Tanji was her name and she was definitely a different kind of dog, just as portrayed in the movie (except for the jinky laughing sound effect they used as fake vocalizations in Lady's first scene on camera). As soon as we moved to Louisiana, I would take Tanji with me on long walks along the Vermilion River and trails threading through its surrounding forests, pretending I was Skeeter roaming the swamplands with Lady on the hunt for wild game. We came across a lot of wild game but Tanji wasn't much of a hunter. She never caught any water rats, never killed any of the neighbor's chickens and never learned to cast about for, or stand point on hidden coveys of quail more than fifty yards away as Lady had in the story. She was headstrong, much like a cat, resisting all training beyond come, sit, stay or sit up and beg. At times she stubbornly ignored all commands. She also hated getting wet, so I never had to worry about her getting into the river or any of its little branching bayous where a water moccasin or alligator might be lurking. I never saw her voluntarily go swimming, but she was bathed several times in any bayou handy after rolling in cow manure and she accidentally leapt into a small bayou one day beside a levee in the Atchafalaya basin near Bayou Teche where campaigns raged as the Union army pushed north to the Red River during the American Civil War. The narrow bayou she jumped into by mistake was partially covered by a carpet of some sort of tiny, green-leafed floating plant which made the surface of the water appear to be a well-manicured piece of ground cover. I was watching her when she suddenly leaped from the bank down into the middle of the dense spread of water plants and wondered what in the world she was thinking, deciding she was most likely thirsty after the drive out to the levee and was trying to get down to water's edge to drink. Although it surprised her as much as it did me, she wasn't injured and as it turned out, she was a good swimmer. About a decade later, my mother was breeding basenjis and we enjoyed company of several litters of the energetic, curly-tailed puppies over several years. Beautiful and intelligent animals, they were the most unusual pets we ever had around the house. And after moving west of the Pecos River, I've only seen one of them again over a stretch of almost two decades now living in the mountains. I used to want a basenji as a pet until losing two rescued dogs I had as pets for about a decade here in the mountains. Now I'm not sure I can bear losing another pet–of any kind–again. My heart still aches terribly from their deaths which occurred less than two years apart. One of them, a golden retriever I named Quinn that someone had shot in the face and left for dead out here, died after eating chicken jerky treats containing meat imported from China which the sneaky fucking bastards had laced with melamine to falsely up its protein content. The other dog, a collie-cattle dog mix named Paddy adopted from a local animal shelter, was sickened by the same tainted chicken treats but survived the poisoning. I accidentally ran over him with the pickup truck. He was getting old and slow to get to his feet and I didn't check first to see if he was napping in front of the truck, which I knew he always did to prevent me from leaving without him if I drove into town. So selfish and stupid of me not to check first. I crushed him, and my heart–very deservedly–has remained thoroughly crushed ever since.
~ THE MADE-UP STUFF ~
On the second evening of the Mardi Gras mystery dinner theater event at Addy's Dive, all diners from the previous evening returned for Act II, including my parents. I expected my father would be here for it, but I was surprised to see my mother with him. Informed upon arrival that they would be dining in the back yard of the restaurant, the diners were all now lined up along the banks of the Vermilion River enjoying cold drinks and appetizers while watching two men ferrying a twenty foot by seven foot section of a fat old bald cypress on a thirty-foot by ten foot flat barge being propelled by long wooden poles the two men were using to push the barge up river toward the landing pier. Edmée had suggested this part of the event and had hired the two men to provide a unique part of the show which would begin tonight and continue until the last night of the event. Honoré came down from the back porch playing his accordion and roamed aimlessly around the back yard, smiling broadly at everyone while playing traditional tunes as the barge docked. It was a scene right out of history and everyone seemed to enjoy it.
As the two men rigged a rope harness around the log and lashed a block and tackle to a large oak tree beside the pier to drag the large log ashore, Keller and Denny described what has going on to the curious diners.
"Tanner and Blake here are going to hand carve a traditional pirogue from the cypress log," Keller told them.
Denny then added "In one piece, without using any power tools. It will take about three days to finish. Feel free to take photos and ask these fine craftsmen any questions you have about it, but beware. Tanner likes to tell dirty jokes." With a laugh, several diners began photographing the craftsmen working to bring the log ashore.
Further back from the bank, restaurant staff were busy preparing to boil copious amounts of shrimp, crab and crawfish in large kettles full of already steaming, throughly spiced water. As soon as the kettles started to boil, lots of vegetables, lemons, oranges, red potatoes and corn on the cob halves were added to the kettles. Picnic tables arranged on the back lawn were covered with newspapers. Pitchers of iced tea and cold beer held the newspapers in place until the boiled fare was ready to serve. No plates were set out but plenty of napkins, crab forks and crackers were provided. Other staff had set up buffet tables on the screened-in back porch where the flies could not get at more Mardi Gras finger foods available there. The evening was balmy after a beautiful February day of clear skies and sunshine.
When the two men had the old log on dry land, they braced it with blocks so it would not shift as they began pounding heavy metal wedges into the log with sledgehammers in the first stage of their work to split away unwanted parts of it. The hammers struck almost musical notes against the metal wedges as chunks fell away in large slabs until a very nicely squared block of wood was ready for shaping. By then is was dusk and a rare few fireflies were winking in the growing gloom. I had only read about fireflies appearing this early in the year, having never seen it happen before. I took it as a good sign of things to come.
While all of this was happening, Keller and Denny were wandering here and there playing their parts as Addy and myself, followed at a discrete distance by Quincy and Cokes performing as Charley and Jase, mingling and interacting with diners between short, scripted scenes of the two lovers talking to each other about their future plans together, sneaking kisses now and again, just as Addy and I had done in secret places where Jase and Charley had chaperoned us so many times during our courting days long ago. Most of their performance was inconsequential but the actors made certain particular scenes were observed and heard by all, especially those covering our hopes, aspirations and hard work to achieve our professional goals–Addy's to own and operate her own restaurant with professional guidance kindly provided by Chef Beauchamp, and my studies in college toward becoming an environmental scientist to help save and preserve any remaining Louisiana coastal wilderness I could. Fully briefed in detail on these things, Keller and Denny encouraged diners to ask them questions which many did as their curiosity about our time together while Addy was still alive mounted.
There were a lot of questions about Addy's murder too, asked in shy, hesitant queries by diners fearful of offending, and by others asking frankly and without reservation what was known and what was still unknown about the murder, the man locked up in jail after confessing to the crime, his upcoming trial and probable execution. This I encouraged by mingling and talking with diners as much as possible. And as we talked, I could tell it was dawning on many of them that something deeper than a mere mystery dinner show designed to address racism was afoot. I could also tell this was intriguing for those seeing the deeper purpose. Cringing when I heard someone mention Gruesome Gertie coming to town, a wave of desperation for Jase coursed through my mind.
"Get them talking about it, Billy" Edmée had advised the night before while we were reflecting on what had happened during Act I. "Get your actor friends to make them comfortable asking questions, too. We need their help in this. The more minds working on it, the better. And don't pre-judge any of them. You never know who might wheedle a good clue out of someone, even by accident."
Nodding that I understood, Charley had added "The ditziest person here might shed light on some detail we might never notice on our on. And any one of them might actually get the murderer to slip up. That would be ideal."
Recalling this advice, I joined Edmée standing near one of the steaming kettles to ask her a question about Jase. Before I could ask it, a woman walked up carrying a puppy of a breed I recognized immediately. I also recognized the woman. She had been the first of the diners to express thanks for doing what we were doing with the mystery show, crying openly with gratitude.
"Billy, this is Chanteur d'amour," she told us, holding her up and nodding that it was okay to pet her, which we both started doing as she went on. "She's from my finest line of breeding stock. Her parents are both descended from basenji's brought to America from Baluba and Lulua villages near the confluence of the Kasai and Lulua Rivers. She's for you, if you want her."
She held the puppy out for me to take. Surprised, I blinked at the woman, not knowing what to say besides what felt like a very lame "Thank you."
I could see a wide smile spread across Edmée's face out of the corner of my eye. Without hesitation, I took the beautiful little basenji pup into my arms. Without protest or struggle, she turned her nose up to my chin and started licking it. The woman smiled with approval.
"I thought she might like you," she said. "I have everything you need to care for her out in my van so you won't have to worry about shopping for it yourself." She motioned toward the parking lot. "Where should I put it all?"
Stunned by this woman's unconditional generosity, I said "We can put it in the office inside," and turned to walk with her to the parking lot. Glancing back at Edmée, she was still smiling and raised her eyebrows high with a single, sage nod of her head. Pete was bussing a table nearby so I called him over to help us. "Pete, we need a little help carrying some stuff inside."
"Wow!" he said as he dashed over and saw the puppy. "Who's cool basenji?"
The woman spoke up, "It's Billy's now. And did you know they are called Saba Dogs in the Congo?" she asked Pete.
Pete shook his head. "Why? I've only ever heard them called basenjis."
"Because in the old Belgian Congo villages they originated from, basenji means savage. Speaking that word there might get you a poked by spear. Saba Dog means 'Dog of the Queen of Sheba'," she replied.
Pete grinned and whistled, gently scratching the puppy behind the ears. She closed her eyes and rocked her head back in delight. "Cool! I like Saba Dog better."
I asked Pete if he could help us take supplies for the puppy into the office. He gladly pitched in. "Has she been named yet?" he asked.
"Chanteur d'amour," I said. "Chante for short."
Hearing her name, the puppy let out a pleasing little yoddle and set to licking my chin and cheek again. I turned to the woman as she unlocked her van and started loading Pete up. "What is you're name, ma-am?"
"Sophie," she replied.
"Thank you, Sophie. This is such a surprise. Such a fine little dog."
Pete winked at Sophie. "You just made his day," he said. "Billy here has always fancied himself a swamp boy like that kid in that old movie from the fifties...what was his name?" he asked me.
Sophie and I answered in unison "Skeeter."
"Yeah, that's it. Skeeter and his little girl dog Lady, not to be confused with Vic and his dog Blood."
Sophie gave Pete a questioning, sidelong look.
"Pete's a movie fanatic." I explained. "Vic and Blood are from one of his favorite 1970s sci-fi movies. Nothing at all like Skeeter and Lady."
Pete nodded and grinned goofily at Sophie.
"He's okay." I added, with a wink. "Best employee we have working here at Addy's Dive," which made Pete beam with pride.
As soon as we had all of the supplies put away in the office, the three of us exited the restaurant through the back dinning room and out the porch. Pete peeled off to attend to his bussing duties with a wave, "Nice to meet you, Sophie!"
She waved back and we proceeded out into the backyard where waitstaff were now transferring boiled seafood and vegetables from the kettles to the picnic tables, calling the diners in for the evening feast. When they turned from watching Tanner and Blake carefully measuring and scribing the cypress block for its first cuts with a two-man crosscut saw, they spotted Chante in my arms and everyone went nuts, coming up to meet and coo and pet her. She accepted the rush of attention in admirable stride, enjoying it without freaking out. I looked to Sophie for confirmation that this was okay and she nodded that it was.
"She's had all of her vaccinations," she said. "All she needs now is lots of loving...and this," she said with a wave at the doting crowd around us, "is perfect for her."
The final scene of Act II got underway as diners were finishing their meals, admiring the huge mess of empty seafood shells and thoroughly gnawed corn cobs scattered across the newspaper-covered picnic tables. Keller and Denny took their positions on the landing of the back porch steps and delivered their lines in clear, sincere voice. Denny proposed to Keller. Keller accepted with a hug and a lingering kiss which Cokes and Quincy rushed onto the landing to break up. The audience cheered as one.
"Here now, stop that you two!" Cokes barked authoritatively. "You'll have plenty of time for that later."
Edmée and I watched the diners closely, but we could see nothing notable in the faces of any of them. Chef Beauchamp stepped out on the landing as the scene concluded and cheering from the diners subsided, giving Keller and Denny a long, appraising look before heading out to the picnic tables followed by waitstaff carrying trays loaded with pitchers full of creamy white liquid.
"Who wants Milk Punch?" he bellowed. "I spiked it myself and it is stout!"
Across the lawn, I saw my mother watching me with her usual severe expression of disapproval. I gave her a good, long stare back before turning my attention to Chef Beauchamp working his way toward us with Carly and two other waitstaff as they poured punch into chilled glass mugs and served them to still applauding diners.
The sound of a crosscut saw applied to cypress wood drifted up from the place Tanner and Blake were making their first cuts by lantern light.
~ THE TRUE STUFF ~ The summer we lived in Louisiana, my mother enrolled my sister and me into a herpetology research field trip being conducted by the local museum of natural science. The goal of the trip was to introduce teenagers to the processes of collection, identification and preservation of as many species of reptiles and amphibians in Louisiana and Mississippi as we could find and capture. After shopping for the stuff we needed to take along on the trip (mostly canned foods like beannie weenie and canned fruits and puddings) Mom drove us over to the museum on Girard Parkway. It was a futuristic looking building with sloping walls paned with bronze-toned one-way glass.
After she dropped us off, other teenagers began arriving. All but two of them were strangers to me. One girl was a friend of my sister and the other a boy I knew from school. I forget now how many of us there were in all. Maybe half a dozen, and man did we have fun together! The museum director gave us a short orientation and then we loaded up into a couple of vans and headed out into the bayous to collect specimens. First, they handed out big, thick rubberbands and showed us how to shoot them at small, agile reptiles too fast to sneak up on and capture by hand. The rubberbands would stun them long enough to collect them without killing them. This phase of our training went well and it wasn't long before a few of us were finding snakes and collecting those by hand too. My parents had instructed all of their children in the art of safely catching snakes so we were good at it. My sister found a particularly difficult to find Worm Snake the museum director had been trying to collect a specimen of for years without success. Then they gave us each a set of snake tongs and a pillowcase to put the snakes we caught into and off we went traipsing through forests and wading into bayous and ponds catching any snake we came across, including poisonous snakes like water moccasins, coral snakes and different kinds of rattlesnakes. After dark, we would load up into the museum vans and roam the country roads looking for reptiles warming themselves on the pavement. Upon spotting one, we would all pile out of the van to capture and examine it. This worked well, especially on nights after it rained. We also ran seine nets in waterbodies and waterways to collect fish, eels, turtles and amphibians. We were eager to please the museum director and his staff with specimens we captured, completely fearless in our pursuit of them. No one got snake bit, but one kid slipped on a muddy slope and cut his shoulder badly. He had to go home for to get it stitched up and heal. The kid I knew from school turned over an old washing machine and was swarmed by bees, getting stung a few times. When he yelled "BEES!" the museum staffer driving the van immediately punched the gas and took off with the rest of us still in the back of the van, leaving my poor classmate to flee on foot–which he did as we all laughed hysterically and encouraged him to keep running until we had all outrun the swarm and he was welcomed back into the fold.
~ THE MADE-UP STUFF ~
This morning's nightmare was the worst yet, leaving a deep sense of remorse for being so arrogant as to engage in Addy's life. I can't describe it in any detail, just that I woke from it convinced that if I never had proposed and married Addy she would still be alive. I understood what had triggered the nightmare–Keller and Denny's re-enactment of the proposal. But why I would suddenly start blaming myself for her death was not at all obvious.
Chante was whimpering when I snapped out of it. I must have been moaning in my sleep and frightened her. Reassuring her with a soft whisper and gentle pat, I returned my attention to the nightmare. I've learned to draw deeper knowledge from my dreams and nightmares than I sometimes can from conscious thought. Something about this nightmare left a nagging sense that I was missing the point my sleeping mind was attempting to raise. I knew not to blame myself for Addy's death just because I fell in love and married her, but cause and effect were central to my training in sciences. Scientific causality drove almost every aspect of my thinking on a daily basis. Dreaming for me seemed to be my subconscious mind's experimental method–its way of analyzing waking events to determine causality. Something about the persistence of results from this morning's nightmarish experiment were significant. And whatever the point of the nightmare was, it would require validation, as any experimental result does.
Oh well. May as well get up and prepare for the day. Letting go of dead-end thinking vectors like this one sometimes allowed insight to bubble up from the depths later, usually at the most unexpected times. Easing out of bed so as to not disturb Chante, she wiggled only a little without opening her eyes, sighed and grew still in her curled up sleeping position with chin resting on hind feet. Good. The previous day had been a load for her to deal with. An abrupt change of master, a throng of strangers all wanting to meet her, a new home. A lot for a puppy to absorb and process. I wondered what she was dreaming about.
That thought led to wondering about what to do with her today. I had to get to the restaurant early this morning to make ready for the evening. Act III entailed some heavy duty content centering on my parent's reaction to announcement of our engagement to be married. My mother had gone ballistic in too many peevish, petty ways to list. My father had said something deeply disturbing along the lines of "Why would you want to marry a black woman, guaranteeing such a dreadful future for your children?". I wanted to punch him in the nose for saying that, but he was right. Life would be more difficult for them than...than. Damn! There's no other way to say it. Than "pure bred" children, no matter the color of their skin. Fuck them. Someone has to stand up to such limited thinking and intolerant attitudes. And I wasn't about to start thinking Addy and I had embarked on some kind of hopeless mission to change the world. We had simply been attracted, discovered we loved each other and had wanted to bond for the long term. Nothing else.
There was no question I was on a mission now, though. Possibly a hopeless one. But the show had to go on. It was progressing under its own relentless momentum. It would either reach the finish line in victory or it would veer off course, crash and burn spectacularly. Time to shit, shower and shave.
I decided Chante would be better off hanging out at the restaurant with me than she would be locked up in some kennel cage or left alone here at the house on her second day as someone's new pet. And by the time I was ready to leave the house, she was ready to head out too for a new day with her new master. Locking up, we struck out across the lawn toward the restaurant just four blocks away. Chante was excited and frisky in the cool morning air. It was still very warm for February, though. No actual nip in the air. Just comfortably cool. A light breeze from the south carried scent of the sea. She dashed in circles around my ankles as we angled toward the street corner. I was afraid at first I might accidentally step on her but she was nimble and kept clear of my footfalls. Then the nightmare invaded my thoughts and I stopped before turning down the alley shortcut I always liked to take. A vision of someone walking with Addy down the alley from the opposite direction I was walking sprang into my mind. No clue who it was. Just a sudden certainty someone was walking with her here the night of her murder. A sudden certainty that someone had done so without alarming her, even in the dimly lit alleyway. I thought of the sudden vision Edmée had described having and decided to tell her about what I had just experienced. And about the nightmare.
Edmée had listened to me describe the vision in silence while sipping at a brandy at the bar in the middle dining room. She kept looking up at the cypress knee carving Ida had created for Addy, squinting at it as though she had spotted some movement in the reptiles sunning themselves in the scene frozen in wood. Charley sat beside her drinking a beer in silence as he listened too. When I finished, she gave me a stern look before saying anything.
"You don't think this was some vision from the great beyond, do you Billy?"
"No," I replied. "It's from my subconscious mind working on the problem. Trying to find answers."
I could see relief in her expression upon hearing that. "Good boy. Let it mull on it then. It's latched onto something significant. Possibly the same thing my old mind has latched onto."
Charley gave Edmée a sidelong glance as he drank from his glass. "Do you know Billy Boy here is a computer geek?" he asked her. She nodded. "He's got one in his house that he pumps his field data through all the time," Charley added. "Maybe it could help us with this problem somehow," he said, looking at me.
"I don't know how, Charley," I replied. "This problem is different from crunching numbers from measurements collected in the field. I don't have a clue about how to approach it computationally."
Edmée waved a hand in the air. "Don't worry about that, Billy. You have enough on your plate managing this mystery dinner event and all it entails. The best computers for tackling this problem are the ones between our ears." She tapped the side of her head with an index finger and then the side of Charley's head to drive home the point.
The Mardi Gras mystery dinner event got under way with evening diners arriving and immediately going to the back yard to take a look at the progress Tanner and Blake had made carving the pirogue from the old cypress log. It was looking much more like a watercraft now, having the general shape of a canoe. The two craftsmen were taking turns using axe and adze to hollow out the inside of the little vessel. Wood chips were flying and just about every diner had a camera in hand taking photos from every angle they could without getting in the way.
Chante was enjoying the activity, running about and sniffing at everyone and everything within nose reach. Sophie came up to me with the old man who had so fervently clutched my hand at conclusion of Act I on the first night of the event. She introduced him to me as Hilly. We greeted each other again with hand shakes and hugs, then stood watching Tanner and Blake working at their project. Chante dashed up and greeted Sophie by trying to convince her to pick her up, which Sophie did, letting the puppy lick her face all she wanted to before setting her back down on the lawn. Hilly squatted and petted Chante a bit then she lost interest in the three of us and dashed off to investigate some other thing as we talked a bit about what had already happened and what was about to happen next in the show.
"Your actor friends have been encouraging us all to ask questions. To speculate on who the murderer might be. That you think the murderer is here watching the show," Hilly said.
Nodding, I confirmed that was the case. "We have so little to go on. The only clue we have of any value is that it must have been someone Addy knew well enough to trust. Someone who leveraged that trust to lethal advantage."
Hilly gazed at me hard and long without saying anything more. Having the inside of the pirogue roughly gouged out, Blake and Tanner flipped it over and braced it level to proceed with fine carving the underside which had been roughed out earlier in the day. Now working with drawknife and block plane, they were making good progress and diners were intrigued by their skill with the hand tools they were using. The sound of their work resonated more musically as the pirogue's final form gradually emerged. Word had gotten around town and now neighborhood children were hanging around to watch Tanner and Blake working. We decided not to chase them away and Chef Beauchamp even put them to work cranking several ice cream makers after showing them how to put the magic marble in first for the tank to rotate upon.
"Ice cream won't come out right without that magic marble," he told them. "The tank won't turn and you'll just end up with a runny milk punch and a lot of wasted ice and salty water," to which the kids all giggled and diligently applied themselves to turning the crank handles with energy only fully-engaged children have.
My parents stood apart from the crowd, watching without engaging in any other way. I didn't give my mother the satisfaction of making eye contact. She no longer deserved any attention from me aside from observation of her reactions as scenes of Act III were being played out by the acting crew.
For use during the final portion of tonight's show, a plywood-decked dance floor had been constructed during the morning hours. Occupying the center of the back yard, it was large enough to accommodate a dozen couples dancing with lots of room to spare. The rare swarm of fireflies had swelled and Carly engaged diners by handing out mason jars with holes punched in their lids for them to put captured fireflies in to place around the perimeter of the dance floor.
"It'll help ya'll from stumbling off the edge," she had informed them. "Especially after you've had a few snorts!" to which the diners laughed and set to catching fireflies winking about in the spring-like evening air. Lanterns were lit and Chef Beauchamp announced dinner was ready to be served in the middle dining room, urging Blake and Tanner to put down their tools and come eat too.
I was still chatting with Hilly near the river bank upon being called to go eat when Chante suddenly rushed up to us and began bouncing about, whining and snarling frantically at Hilly's feet. I glanced to see what she was making such a fuss over and saw a three foot long water moccasin curled and poised to strike at Hilly's leg, its mouth already opened to expose its cottony-white warning sign of impending strike. Without thinking, I calmly stepped on the snake's head from behind, pinning it to the ground and gently shoved Hilly away from it. The snake's body coiled around my ankle as it struggled to break free. Reaching down and grasping the thick snake behind its triangular head, I lifted it, pulling its strong coils from my ankle and in one smooth motion flung it as far out across the river as I could. It landed midstream with a plop and swam toward the opposite bank. I looked at Hilly whose eyes had grown enormous above a startling white smile. A racist caricature of a black man in the dark–only white of eyes and teeth visible–flashed through my mind's eye. I pushed it back with disgust into a dark corner of my mind and asked Hilly if he was okay.
"You just saved my life," he said, still grinning at me as if I was his lord and savior Jesus. "I've never had anyone take a risk like that for me in my whole life."
I shook my head. "Naw, even if it had bitten, we would have got you to the hospital in time to get some antivenin into you."
"How'd you know what to..." he started to say, then closed his mouth and nodded slowly. "All that time in the field. That whole year you just spent looking for Addy. You've learned some stuff, son. Thank you," he said and then took my hand and shook it vigorously. Chante hopped about at our feet yodeling happily.
During dinner, Hilly spread the story of his rescue from snake bite with the rest of the diners, including my parents. As expected, I could see my mother wasn't at all impressed that I had saved a nigger from harm, if not death, and I watched the hatred writhing about on her face and began to wonder very seriously if she was the murderer–almost wanting her to be guilty of the crime. I hated the thought of having emerged into the world from her womb. She must have seen something stark and cold in my facial expression as these thoughts cascaded through my mind because she visibly blanched and looked away.
"You fucking bitch," I thought to myself. "If you killed Addy, I'm going to kill you myself," and I'm certain I blanched at that thought because I suddenly felt nauseous and rushed outside for air. Chante ran up and clamored into my lap with a soft whine as I sat down hard on the back porch steps, hurting my tailbone.
I stayed outside as dinner was served and did not go back inside to eat. Charley came out to see if I was okay. I told him I just wasn't hungry and remained where I was on the steps until the diners and actors came outside to dance. I moved to a lawn chair and held Chante in my lap, watching the dancing begin. Honoré and his band struck up a lively tune as couples began whirling about on the dance floor. Fireflies twinkled in the mason jars around its perimeter. Tanner and Blake stopped working on the pirogue and joined the dancing throng with Pamela and Tess. Cokes grabbed Sophie and led her about the floor, much to her surprise and delight. Jamie danced with Hilly. It was a merry scene that helped me forget about my hateful mother and a growing suspicion of how treacherous a woman she might be.
Several dances later, as the nausea finally passed, I heard Keller's strong stage voce as she emerged from the back porch to begin the final scene of Act III. I tensed for it, knowing the shit was about to hit the fan and watched everyone–especially my mother–as Keller rushed in obvious fury down from the landing to the dance floor and confronted every single diner, relative or stranger, getting right up in their face about their disapproval of our upcoming wedding plans. Some of the diners flinched from her confrontational act, most of those who flinched being Addy's relatives. Some did not, all strangers to Addy's family, including Hilly and Sophie. She left Tanner and Blake alone, per my instructions, but not my mother. She flinched violently when Keller came at her, actually backing away in fear when she strode up and leaned in close to my mother's face to deliver her carefully scripted lines.
"And you," she snarled. "You hate the thought of your pretty white son marrying a dirty, stinking, worthless nigger like me, don't you?"
My father stepped forward and reached to push Keller back. "Now wait just a minute there," he said. But Keller dodged his hand and advanced on her target. "The thought of it makes you sick, doesn't it? His white skin up against my nasty blackness." she spat at her. "And you would never welcome me into your home, that would be sacrilege by your twisted interpretation of the scriptures!"
My mother grabbed for my father's arm, tugging on it hard as if to drag him along to leave but Keller had turned her attention to another of her relatives and my father urged her to calm down and stay, saying something in her ear in a whisper I could not hear. Dancing had stopped. Honoré and his band had stopped playing as soon as Keller had started the scene. The dance floor was roiling with whispers and gasps as Keller worked them over good in her solo scene, flying from diner to diner, gesturing, and accusing with one line of logic or another. By the time she was done with them and turned to exit the dance floor, Chef Beauchamp had come out of the restaurant to see what was going on. Keller met him on the landing and ramped up the volume of her voice as she addressed him.
"What about you?" she barked, pointing at his nose with a stiff forefinger poking from a tight, hard fist. "There's something about you in all of this that isn't quite kosher," she accused. "Why didn't you go to Addy's funeral? After all, you were her mentor!"
Chef Beauchamp stepped back in shock at her unexpected attack, his mouth open and closing several times in a vain attempt to speak in his own defense, but nothing came out of it except a harsh rush of air even I could hear from my seat out on the back lawn.
It was true, he had not gone to Addy's funeral after the coroner had finished the autopsy and filed his report stating that the cause of Addy's death had been the result of a vicious blow to the right side of her head with a hard, rough object. Possibly a rock. He had never even sent a condolences card to me or anyone else, but he had finally expressed his condolences to me about a week after the funeral when we encountered each other at the post office. He had stumbled up to me as I was checking my box, obviously very drunk and smelling of bourbon. His words were slurred and I did my best to thank him and exit the post office as people had started stopping to watch. I was feeling raw enough about everything in the world and had no desire to deal with a drunk in front of other people at that moment.
After Keller had gone back inside the restaurant, Chef Beauchamp shot a cold glare at me, then looked around the dance floor at all of the diners. Many of them were obviously as pissed off as he was at having been openly accused of murder.
The dance floor was quiet. No one wanted to dance. Honoré and his band cased their instruments and departed with a nod at me where I still sat with Chante in my lap, concluding Act III.
~ THE TRUE STUFF ~ Almost four months after I was born, one thousand three hundred and thirty five miles east and a little bit north of my birthplace, a baby named W. Daniel Hillis came into the world. Born to academic parents wise enough to know that they could homeschool their child better than any public or private school ever could, they provided Danny with a multitude of rich learning experiences while living in Europe, Africa and Asia. And as they traveled the world, Danny's mind developed into a formidable, inventive thinking force. The summer of my senior year in college, I took a course in data communications being taught by the dean of the school of mathematics and computer science. I always enjoyed attending his classes and wanted to learn about emerging network communications technology after the university purchased and installed a bunch of new i386 personal computers with network interface cards in them and created the first networked computing lab on campus. It was an interesting course and set my mind wandering along exciting new thought vectors it had never considered before. Students enrolled in the course were required to present a prospectus for and write a senior thesis on some aspect of ( or related to) data communications. This was a couple of years before the world wide web was invented, so I ventured into the shadowy basement of the university library to scour the latest mathematics and computing periodicals for a topic I could really sink my teeth into. I didn't want to research and write about anything as mundane as packet switching or time-division multiplexing already thoroughly explored and hammered into the ground. I wanted to write about some sexy emergent technology few people had heard about. Bleeding edge. Even borderline crazy. After spending a few days falling headlong into the subject of Henon Maps (for which I could not come up with any sort of feasible data communications relationship), I found the perfect topic in a 1985 MIT Association for Computing Machinery article titled "The Connection Machine" about a young graduate student's proposal for a new kind of massively parallel computer architecture utilizing thousands of simple processing units and a physical short-wire hypercube network architecture which could easily be reconfigured–on the fly through software–into virtually any other network structure. This made the Connection Machine an ideal platform for symbolic computation on semantic networks used in artificial intelligence machine learning programs. To add icing to this cake, the author of the ACM article was of my own generation: W. Daniel Hillis. Excited by discovery of this very bleeding edge topic, I wrote up my prospectus and presented it to the professor at the last minute on the day it was due, practically trembling in my chair as he read, re-read and approved it. Ensuing research was as delightful as writing the thesis and I turned it in early, eager to see how the professor would react to it. I needed a confidence boosting that week because the tiny house I was living in at the time had just been burglarized and everything of any value had been taken, including my personal computer containing every bit of college study content I had produced up to that date. The day after turning the thesis in, the professor called me into his office and complimented my work on it, but then he dropped a bombshell. "This is a very interesting topic and you've written about it clearly and concisely," he complimented. A rush of relief coursed through my body. He liked it. Maybe he had given me an A for it. "But you haven't written a conclusion in this paper," he added, and then waited for me to reply. I sat there stunned, my rush of relief totally doused, having no clue in mind for a conclusion at the moment. He watched me start sweating bullets for a full minute and then handed the paper back to me. "I won't grade it until you've written a conclusion. Please return it to me by Monday no later than ten o'clock AM," and dismissed me to get on with it. It was late Friday afternoon. I had about eighty hours to come up with a good conclusion. Relieved for being granted a reprieve, I rushed home and began racking my brain for a conclusion with enough meat to it to match the meat of Danny Hillis' brilliant Connection Machine. Since my personal computer had been stollen, I worked the rest of Friday and all weekend long on my father's IBM XT instead, hammering out a long list of possible conclusions. None of them were any good. In fact, they all sucked so much I can't remember any of those candidate conclusions now. Exhausted, I finally went to bed to try to get some sleep around midnight Sunday night. As with most good ideas, this one came in my sleep while dreaming about finally getting my hands on a Connection Machine to play with. I had recently read about Dr. Hillis' company Thinking Machines Corporation launching the CM-2 which described it as a black cube festooned with blinking LEDs showing activity of each of its thousands of CPUs connected by a twelve dimensional n-cube (hypercube) network. My imagination came up with an image very much like the CM-2's actual design.
As I tinkered with the dreamed up Connection Machine, it transformed from the beautiful black cubic form spangled with red LEDs I had imagined into a bank of more familiar, personal computers commercially available on the retail market, all arranged on cheap metal shelves and all interconnected by a custom-built hypercube network. The red LEDs on their network interface cards were all blinking away as data frames moved through them. I woke with a start Monday morning while it was still dark outside and rushed to my father's personal computer, fired up WordStar and pounded out the final section of the paper as the sun was rising. I didn't have time to do a lot of editing so I just let the idea pour out of me onto the computer screen, the core of my conclusion being that perhaps a poor man's Connection Machine could be constructed using off-the-shelf personal computers and network interface cards with custom designed and coded networking software to emulate the n-cube network of a Connection Machine. I rushed to the professor's office and turned it in mere minutes before the deadline and he handed it back to me the next day after class. He had awarded an A grade to the thesis, complimenting me on how good the conclusion was, how I was able to see the big picture. Then he urged me to think about continuing my studies in graduate school, that an ability to see the big picture was key to success and that my lengthy college career of 192 credit hours already completed indicated I had the stamina for pursuit of a masters degree. I thought about it until receiving a call from the university administration office a few months later that they had my diploma ready for me to pickup. I immediately ran flat out to the admin office to get it, ran flat out back home and started looking for my first job as a professional. Two months later I was employed as a professional for the first time in my life and making money designing and developing software. Seven years after graduating from college, I read about the Beowulf Cluster created by Thomas Sterling and Donald Becker at NASA and mentally kicked myself in the ass for not taking my professor's advice to try doing the same thing myself as a graduate school project. In retrospect, I should have tried to continue my education. It would have been so much more rewarding than chasing after the almighty dollar.
If you'd like to learn more about The Connection Machine, see the book on the subject:
~ THE MADE-UP STUFF ~
Mercifully, no nightmare this morning. That's not to say the morning has been pleasant. Anything but, and I doubt much of anything pleasant is in store for a long time to come.
Sitting beside Jase's bed, holding his hand, it was clear Charley was right. Jase was already gone.
"I don't know if it will do you or Jase any good to go see him, Billy," Charley had told me the night before while he and Edmée talked over the fallout from Keller's award-winning performance in Act III.
"He's so pumped full of morphine he doesn't know where he is or who he is. That goddamn prosecuting attorney is so hellbent on keeping him alive to cook in the electric chair, they moved him over to University Hospital and are feeding him through tubes now since he won't eat on his own."
"They can't execute someone who's out of his mind sick," I said.
Charley glanced at Edmée who looked at me and replied "This is Louisiana, Billy. They're going to do what's best for newspaper and TV. This is a career-building opportunity for the DA. He's not about to let it slip through his short, fat fingers."
I knew she was right. It was still a white man's world, and not just in Louisiana.
Jase stirred and his grip tightened on my fingers. Not much, but enough to feel.
"Jase. It's Billy Boy," I whispered. I could see the deputy jailer assigned to watch over Jase get up from his chair and come over to listen.
Jase didn't move or speak. His eyes remained closed, his breathing steady but labored. Hating myself for wanting him to wake up from the only peaceful place left to him, I said his name a little louder. He squeezed my hand a bit harder.
"Yes, Jase. I'm here."
He opened his eyes and turned his head a little to the left to see me. Smiled.
"Billy Boy," he said. "Oh where have you been...".
"Running Addy's restaurant, Jase." was all I could think of in reply.
"That's good, Billy. You and Addy...your black pearl...".
The deputy jailer leaned over and asked Jase the most idiotic question I've ever heard come out of someone's mouth.
"Jason. This is Melvin. What do you want to eat for your last meal? They have to know in advance."
If my eyes had been howitzers, deputy Melvin would be dead. Headless and still standing, but dead. My head snapped around so hard I heard bones grind in my neck and I glared at the stupid son of a bitch until he backed away a little, but not much–still intent on listening in, per orders from the sheriff.
Jase smiled, still looking at me but aware of the deputy's stupid question. He squeezed my hand again, this time pretty damn hard for someone in his condition. Locking eyes with me, he answered in a stronger voice.
"Beauchamp...oyster..." he said.
The deputy nodded, satisfied. "Will do," he replied and backed away, thinking Jase had just ordered oysters on the half shell for his last meal. The dumbass. Then Jase frowned at me and I thought he might be about to have a pain attack from the cancer consuming him from the inside out. But he stayed still in his bed, the frown was meant to get my attention.
"Beauchamp...oyster..." he repeated, then added "black pearl...black...heart..." with a hiss before passing out. Leaving Jase's room, I had wanted to slam the deputy against the wall and beat him to a pulp. But he was law and had a gun on his hip. A waste of time anyway.
Exiting the hospital, I stood in sunny warmth of another unusually mild February morning, fighting down an urge to curse and cry and vomit all at once.
"Billy! Hey Bill, wait up!"
Looking across the semi circle of the driveway in front of the hospital, I saw Jamie trotting across it toward me.
"Good, you're still here. Charley told me I might catch you here," she gasped, out of breath.
"What are you doing here, Jamie?" I asked. "Is something wrong?"
Still breathing hard, she looked at me with a gleam in her eye. "What isn't wrong in all of this?" she asked before grabbing my arm and pulling me toward her car. "We need to get over to the computer lab. Marty and Steve have something you need to see."
I hesitated, resisting her pull. "Jamie, I need to get back to the restaurant to prepare for tonight's show. There's a lot to do for Act IV, even though you don't have to be there."
Jamie's role in the mystery dinner show had been light since she was involved in a play at the university. She had mainly been working the diners up as a pretend-waitress to get them talking and asking questions.
"No!" she practically shouted at me. "Come on! Come on!" she insisted, urgently yanking at my arm damn hard, even grabbing with both hands and bending at the knees to put her weight behind it. Jamie had never been much for refining her social skills, so I followed to save the rotator cup in my shoulder joint and we drove over to the computer lab.
As we walked down the long hallway to the lab, Jamie stuck her head in every open door we passed "Seen Marty and Steve?" she asked if anyone was in the room before dragging me on down the hall to the next. We found Steve in the new PC network lab tinkering on a desktop computer. Jamie just said "Come on!" and Steve obeyed immediately, coming out into the hall and pointing "Down this way to the AI room," he said, leading the way.
Marty was already in the AI room, sitting at a terminal typing away. "Here he is," Jamie announced and plopped down in a chair behind Marty. Steve pointed to a chair beside Marty for me to take and he stood behind me next to Jamie who was leaning forward for a better view of the terminal screen.
Steve talked while Marty typed in commands, bringing up a graph of some sort on a very nice, high resolution color graphics display just to the left of the terminal he was typing at. "We've been working on an artificial intelligence project with this guy we know at MIT. His name is DH and after he and a classmate built a working computer that could play tic tac toe out of nothing but tinker toys, fishing line, and escutcheon pins, he built this kick ass, massively parallel processing computer called a Thinking Machine. He let us use one called CARMaL, short for Cryptic Analysis Relational Maps and Leads to test some of our own AI software written in LISP."
On the graphics display, a live video feed appeared showing what must be a computer lab. A set of black cubes with dense banks of blinking red LEDs were in frame of the camera.
"That's it," Steve said. "The Thinking Machine CARMaL. It's a prototype but it works. Works great and so we've been collaborating with DH and his research team to help it acquire criminal investigative knowledge through machine learning, you know, through a semantic network leveraging 64,000 processors and graph theory."
I didn't know but gave a nod for Steve to continue. "So we recruited a bunch of grad students working in different subject matter both here and at MIT to feed it with what they know about in their fields of study, like finance, medicine, engineering, criminal investigation, and so on."
Steve pointed at the graphics display. A young kid was looking back at us, waving. "That's DH," Steve said and waved at him. "We're ready here, DH. Fire it up whenever you're ready."
DH signed OK with his circled forefinger and thumb. "Here it comes," he announced and the live video image of him was replaced by a static image of strange symbols sprinkled with regular characters of the alphabet here and there. Some of the symbols and characters were blocked in various colors.
This is the Z340, the code used by the Zodiac Killer in messages he sent to police and press. DH's Thinking Machine has been working on decoding it from graphed knowledge derived from data extracted and plugged in from police reports and evidence files. I nodded to indicate I was following.
Steve nodded back and poked Marty in the shoulder from behind. Marty typed a command and up on the graphics display appeared a set of graphs with rectangular nodes containing text and arrow-ended edges connecting the nodes.
Text in the nodes included words like PERSON, PLACE, SUSPICIOUS, VIOLENT, WEAPON, MOTIVE, TIMELINE, TRANSPORT, MODE, ROUTE, 1ST-DEGREE and so on.
"This is the violent murder graph the Thinking Machine is using to learn and understand what murder is all about to try to solve the Z340 code. The nodes are concepts, the edges–arrows–are conceptual relationships. CARMaL already has a firm grasp of the concept of murder but that devious code is a ballbuster, still unsolved. So we asked DH if we could get some processing time on CARMaL, and he agreed."
Marty tapped a single key and a second graph of the same form appeared but it was much more dense and its nodes contained people's names and words like INHERITANCE, GREED, JEALOUS, NEED, DEBT, ADDICTION, FEAR, HATE, STRANGER, ACQUAINTANCE, RACIST, SON, SIBLING, COUSIN, AUNT, UNCLE, SPOUSE, FRIEND, DAUGHTER, GRANDSON, GRANDDAUGHTER, GREATGRANDSON, GREATGRANDDAUGHTER etc. Looking closer, I saw names of people as subtext in the familial concept nodes. Most were names of people in Addy's family (including me), some were names of people she worked with or knew and then I saw my parent's and brother's names. Steve was watching me and nodded when he saw I understood.
"This is the fragments graph. The Thinking Machine has been using these two graphs to analyze every possible suspect in relation to the known aspects of Addy's murder, which aren't a hell of a lot," he said. "Charley has been coming here in the wee hours of the morning to provide details on Addy's relatives and acquaintances to build the fragments graph for it to piece together. So the Thinking Machine has been leveraging inferential logic and these graphs with everything that is known to essentially set up a virtual suspect lineup to narrow it down to the top ten most likely perpetrators of the crime. In terms of man years, it has been working on this problem for decades with its 64,000 processors and high-speed semantic network processing all of this symbolic data in parallel around the clock since Charley finished feeding us the last of the data it needed do its sleuthing."
Steve leaned back then, pausing and looking at me. I waited a moment then said, "Is it done yet?"
Steve bumped the leg of Marty's chair with the toe of his boot. I looked down at it and then at the shoes Marty was wearing and wondered why computer guys were always compelled to wear heavy-duty hiking boots in a computer lab as if a mountain might suddenly spring up through the panels of raised flooring. Marty typed in a short command and a list of names appeared on the left side of the graphics display along with a complex graph on the right. The list of names was numbered 1 through 52 with each of the top ten names displayed in bold font of a different color. My name was at the bottom of the list of fifty two, along with Edmée, Jase and Charley. The graph showed groups of nodes of the same color and the edges were colored a range of black to bright red. I leaned close to look at it. Squinting at the number one name at the top of the list, shocked by who it was claiming was the murderer.
I reached out and pointed at the name with an unsteady index finger. "Number one is the top suspect?" I asked. Marty and Steve nodded in unison. I looked at Jamie then traced across the display to the matching color-group of nodes on the fragments graph to the right of the list and found the one labeled MOTIVE. Surrounding that node were several more identically colored fragments depicting all relationships used to draw conclusion for the top choice.
I began to tremble and looked at Jamie. "Have you told anyone about any of this yet?"
She shook her head. "Not a soul. And neither have either of these two sexy nerds," she chirped, making Steve and Marty blush fiercely.
Marty twisted around in his chair to give Jaime a hopeful, flirtatious wink then at me, grinning triumphantly. Steve was doing the same. Then the graphics display flashed bright white and began playing a hauntingly beautiful strain of digitally-generated melody in counterpoint to a low, ominous digital singing voice.
"With skull cracked
"So rock smacked..."
Marty spun back around and hammered in a four-character command "STOP" and the display fell silent.
"Sorry," he said, then explained. "The first grad students to feed CARMaL knowledge were a musician/mathematician and a poet/linguist from Bryce Hall. CARMaL took up song writing and performance as a hobby after they got through with her. We can't make her stop. She's writing her own code now."
"It took up a hobby? All on it's own?" I asked.
I looked at Steve and Jamie. They sat in their chairs, leaning back with arms crossed, both nodding slowly at me. Marty shrugged. "Intelligent creatures are inherently curious and creative."
"Yeah, music and songs composed by a massively parallel, high-speed murder motive analysis machine developing its own emergent emotional subroutines makes for some really morbid tunes," Jaime said. She turned to Steve and said "It should be renamed to just TSS. The Singing Sleuth."
Steve rolled his eyes.
I shook my head, startled at the mere possibility of such a thing happening in my lifetime.
"Way too Star Trekkie for me," I said. At that, Jamie leaned forward with her hands clasped beneath her chin. "I know," she gushed. "It's too tomorrow! Have you seen Star Trek The Motion Picture yet?" she asked all of us. We all looked at her as if she were a nut, then as fellow nuts we nodded that we all had. She giggled and clapped her hands, exclaiming with untethered glee. "I love this geeky shit!
Marty had turned in his seat to watch Jamie again. "Why are you studying the acting arts, girl? You should be in compsci. You're one of us."
Jamie patted him on the shoulder. "I can do both...if I ever get another scholarship."
"Okay," I said, returning to reality. "This stays under wraps. I know enough about computers to know the old Garbage In/Garbage Out motto and have doubts, but I have to admit this is impressive. I want to talk to Edmée about the number one suspect CARMaL has in mind to see if it's the one she has at the top of her list too."
Everyone nodded. "Not a word," Steve said, doing a tick-a-lock pantomime while Jamie and Marty fervently crossed their hearts in hopes to die if they leaked.
I left them at the university AI lab and hurried back to the house, picked up Chante and then walked toward Addy's Dive, excited by, but leery of what I had just seen. I paused in the alley and visualized suspect number one walking beside Addy and Addy walking along unperturbed and unaware of the danger lurking within that person. Recalling the fragment graph nodes related to the choice, CARMaL's number one pick made sense. A hell of a lot of sense.
After checking with Chef Beauchamp and Carly that things were in motion in the kitchen, I went out back to visit with Tanner and Blake. They were busy bringing the pirogue's shape into final form using smaller tools suited to this stage of the project. The little watercraft's grain patterns were all waves and curves along its sides and bottom, inside and out. It was bound to become a collector's piece.
Act IV would involve Leroux's so I walked with Chante at heel over and talked with Marie about a few details of how the final scene would unfold there.
"Katriane will be here for it," Marie said. "She's eager to help in any way she can."
A flash of what Jase had said in his doped up fog at the hospital shot through my thoughts. "black pearl...black...heart...". Marie saw something in my face and put a hand on the front of my shoulder. "What, Billy?"
"I just realized something, Marie. Something about the pendant you gave to Addy at our wedding."
"What?" she asked.
"I think the murderer may still have it."
"You don't think it's lost in the river?"
"No. I used to think that. I just assumed that. Now I'm thinking we shouldn't assume it. It may be a key piece of evidence for identifying the killer."
Marie rocked back at bit and blinked a few times. "Then this scene beside the shell pile with Katriane...if we can make a duplicate of Addy's pendant...".
I nodded. She understood. "I'll take care of it, Billy."
Returning to Addy's Dive, I helped out in the kitchen to get the lunch crowd served and then everything cleaned up and prepped for the evening show. While we were cleaning, the acting crew were out on the back lawn setting up and rehearsing for Act IV, then they disappeared to get into costume and prepare to take positions.
The sun touched the tops of cypress trees to the west and diners began arriving. Despite every assumption that many would drop out after Keller's extreme solo performance the previous evening, every single diner returned. Even my black hearted mother. A pack of neighborhood kids sat in a semicircle watching the craftsmen shaping the pirogue and diners went around to the back to join them until the show started. Frogs croaked along the banks of the river. Fireflies appeared. Lanterns were lit and hung on tall posts. Flying insects congregated around them. Little translucent geckos scaled the posts to hunt them. A small flock of pelicans glided in low, slow and regal mere inches above the water and landed in a scattering of Vs expanding behind them on the river's surface. The diners and kids applauded their arrival. The pelicans turned on the water and shook their pouches at us.
Honoré stepped out onto the landing pier alone and began playing "At Last" just as he had done to kick off our wedding on Little Bayou so long ago. The diners turned their attention to the river and watched as the large pirogue Edmée had given to us as our wedding gift came into view. Honoré smoothly shifted to the wedding march. Keller and Denny stood all in white at the front with Cokes and Quincy behind at the oars piloting the pirogue up close to the bank. They re-enacted the wedding as scripted after everyone, including restaurant staff, were out on the back lawn to watch. I stood in shadow watching, clutching poor little Chante a little too tightly. She whimpered for me to ease my hold. I did, but a vise picked up there, slowly tightening down on my heart.
After saying their vows, Keller and Denny came ashore and began mingling with the diners and neighborhood kids while staff went back into the restaurant to prepare for serving the evening meal. The diners, except for my parents, were animated, talking excitedly with the acting crew as they worked the crowd until it was time to eat. Chef Beauchamp, already tipsy after getting the meal served out, had prepared a beautiful three course meal the diners thoroughly enjoyed.
As they finished eating, Carly announced that desert would be served at Leroux's just down the street and proceeded to organize the walk over there, getting everyone outside and ready to go, including staff. When she was sure everyone was ready, off we went two blocks south and around to the back porch of Leroux's where their new chef brought out a huge King Cake and began carving it up in portions to serve to diners.
Once they had their cake and were eating it too, the acting crew began re-enacting the gifting portion of the wedding with Marie's gifting of the black pearl being the pinnacle of the scene. Just as everyone had finished with desert, Marie called for Keller and Denny to please follow her out to the oyster shell pile near the river bank out back. Katriane was already there waiting for Marie. They re-enacted their casual shell hunting session together where Katriane pretended to find the fragment eventually used to make Addy's pendant. She polished it off and held it up for all to see its rough heart-shape and lustrous gleam. The diners applauded, all aware of who they were watching, having read about Katriane and her jewelry work in many trade magazines and news articles. Keller brought out the black pearl and handed it to Katriane who then sat down at a small, makeshift workbench, glued it to the shell fragment, knotted a finished leather cord with clasp to it and then gave it to back to Keller.
Denny made a great show of putting the pendant around Keller's neck upon which Keller gave him a hug and longer-than-necessary-for-theater kiss, hugged Katriane and thanked her, and then moved about modeling the pendant to everyone else. It looked exactly like the original and as she modeled it, I watched the expressions on the faces of all who took a look at it, especially CARMaL's number one suspect. I had asked Keller to linger with that person without telling her why. She did so, holding the pendant out for them to take a close look and touch it. The suspect did so then as Keller moved on, immediately turned and went into the restaurant in a rush. I followed at a discreet distance, handing Chante to Charley as I eased through the back door into the restaurant. And as I tiptoed across the empty back and middle dining rooms I heard the door of the front entrance open and close. Rushing to the front dining room, I eased up to a window and watched the suspect crossing the street. Someone moved beside me and I jumped straight up about a foot. Edmée had snuck in behind me and was now peeking through the window too, watching the suspect leaving at a fast trot.
I blinked at Edmée, surprised she could move so fast, so quietly, for a woman her age. I never had to ask her about whether her prime suspect was the same one CARMaL had identified.
"So now you know," she said.
~ THE TRUE STUFF ~ Creating and operating my own business was always a goal in adult life for me. I regret having waited far too long to do it. After a half century of living and about two thirds of that time spent working under the thumb of so many bad supervisors in too many bad companies (and one totally dysfunctional government agency, now in a complete shambles) the time had come to take the plunge or regret having never tried at all before facing death. Two years after starting my little one-person creative services company, the Great Recession began with banksters and automakers deemed too big to fail being bailed out from crises caused by self-inflicted damage as a result of criminal acts perpetrated on their customers. Being too small to matter for shit, it was obvious society had zero concern for my future and operation of my little company became a struggle for survival as a self-employed member of a society I no longer had any faith in or any desire to participate as a member of. Now society has turned mean and hateful, its hair trigger ready to be pulled at the slightest provocation. Bringing this story, or any others I may write in the future, to a happy ending would seem pointless in light of the state of society if it had not been my good fortune to be raised by active, intelligent parents optimistically focused on pursuing promising endeavors and adventures in life rather than stagnating in despair. They instilled that attitude in me through exposure to many more positive outcome experiences than negative, helping me always want to strike out on more adventures promising more positive experiences while building and leveraging an ever-growing set of knowledge and skills to more successfully transform each promising prospect into reality. Hope isn't something I've ever been compelled to harbor for any reason. Belief has never been worth much to me either. Both a complete waste of thought, effort and time. What drives me is availability of prospects for achieving tangible positive progress without having to resort to criminal behavior and activity to achieve goals of practical value. My parents have always demonstrated by example this approach to life. It rubbed off, and for that I can never thank them enough.
~ THE MADE-UP STUFF ~
Addy's dream of creating and operating her own restaurant became a reality which lasted all of four months for her, from grand opening day to the moment she locked up at close of business the night of her murder. And while I was a supportive spouse during that time, my support was applied separate from her business. I can take no credit of any sort for creation of Addy's Dive or its startup success. I kept my clueless nose out of it, at first to some consternation for her, then later in relief as she learned more about me and my interests which were all but useless in the restaurant business realm. It was all Addy's doing. And she was totally in her element making it happen. My delight from it all came about as result of seeing her so happily pursuing her goals while being free to happily pursue my own unhindered. Addy knew this. That keeps me from going insane, now, living without her. I knew she was happy–possibly as happy as she had ever been in her entire life–right up to the moment she must have realized she was in mortal danger. Before her skull was bashed open. Before she was dumped in the river. So I begin this final day of the Addy's Dive Murder Mystery Dinner Event without harboring useless hope for or belief in any sort of justice. I am driven only to achieve a goal which will propel my life forward in a positive direction. Not an escape from the past, but eager to proceed into a future of positive experiences I know Addy would want for me.
Talking with Edmée and Charley the night after Act IV, we decided to meet with Keller the next day as soon as she could get to the restaurant. She rushed over as soon as she received our message, eager to help. And when she entered through the back door of Addy's Dive and came over to sit at the table with us, a surge of wonderment at her desire to help–as well as the desire of everyone else involved–blew me away. How did I get so lucky to know such people and wanted to ask her that very question, but knew it would do no good for either of us. Keller knew my heart and I knew hers in all things we were concerned with here. Best to get on with the business at hand.
We told her who our prime suspect was, much to her surprise, and bounced around ideas to expose the culprit in Act V this evening. She came up with a scene to push the suspect to the edge of mental tolerances.
"I can push hard, as you know, Billy, but when the murderer snaps, we need some way to get law enforcement down on their ass right away."
I smiled at Keller for saying "when" instead of "if". I've always loved her positive attitude. "Leave that to Charley. He knows what to do and how to time it," I told her. "You have the pendant?"
She opened the collar of her shirt to show me. A surge of sadness coursed through me seeing it on the beautiful dark skin of her neck, so much like Addy's. Pushing that sadness down, I got up and looked at my watch. Almost time for morning staff to arrive for the day. "Kitchen staff will be here soon. Let's get you out of here."
Chef Beauchamp arrived late and badly hungover. I was glad this would be the last day he would be needed at the restaurant. His drinking had worsened to the point he was just short of being a liability. Carly saw need to step up to compensate for his instability and did so without having to be asked. I would thank her later with a nice bonus.
The lunch shift went smoothly and staff had everything ready for the evening show well before diners arrived. The theater crew was primed and ready for the final act. Tanner and Blake were already at work applying finishing touches to the pirogue and neighborhood kids were starting to drift in to watch them work. Chante was bounding about at play with some of them.
Sophie and Hilly arrived first and I asked if they could keep an eye on Chante this evening while we wrapped up the event. They said they would be glad to and went out back to see to her and progress of the pirogue. Other diners began trickling in and once again none had dropped out. I bumped into Chef Beauchamp as he was heading to the restroom for another toilet hugging session. He mumbled an apology and I grabbed his arm to stop him.
"What's eating at you, Chef?" I asked.
He flinched away from me and ducked his head. "Not a goddamned thing. Let's just get this over with."
I let him go do his heaving alone and went into the kitchen to see if Carly needed anything. She didn't so I left her to it and went out back to mingle with the diners and describe tonight's act.
"It was about this time a year ago when Addy's Dive opened for the first time. A few of you were here for that grand opening and I appreciate you returning for this re-opening event. I know Addy was happy to have so many come for the grand opening and would be pleased by this turnout."
A round of applause rose from the diners, the kids and even Tanner and Blake stopped working to clap their wood-dusted hands. A couple of the kids had started to climb the oyster shell heap but Hilly stepped up to shoo them down. I smiled and nodded to him in thanks. The last thing we needed was a kid with cuts from a tumble down the heap.