Authors: Penelope Williamson
Tags: #Mystery, #FIC000000
“And I'm never going to leave you. No matter what you do; no matter what is done to you, or to me for loving you, I'm not leaving.”
“I know that, too.”
So don't you leave me.
He wanted to say that, but he didn't. Because sometimes, even with all your good intentions, life is neither fair nor gentle.
“I wonder,” he said to her half an hour later, knowing she would have followed his thoughts because she always did, “if he was ever in love.”
“Or if she was.”
Paris, Louisiana, had grown up back when sugar was king, but she was like an aging Southern belle now. Still showy on the outside, but afflicted with a melancholy that life was passing her by.
The Bayou Lafourche divided Paris in the same way railroad tracks divided other towns. On the east side ran Napoleon Boulevard, lined with cottonwoods, stately Victorian houses, and shops with false fronts and narrow spooled rail galleries. West of the bayou was the back side of town, where a dime was a fortune, and sugar mills belched smelly smoke over honky-tonks, whorehouses, and ramshackle homes.
A couple of colored boys with straw hats were fishing for bream from the drawbridge that crossed the bayou onto Napoleon Boulevard. Rourke pulled up and asked them where the orphanage was, but they said they hadn't heard of any orphanage in Paris.
article said he grew up in a St. Joseph's Home for Children,” Rourke said to Remy. “So if there ever was such a place, it was probably near the church.”
They found St. Joseph's easily enough because its steeple could be seen from any part of town. They didn't find anything nearby that looked remotely like it could have been an orphanage, but on the other side of the church rectory was a field choked with jimsonweed and cattails, and in the middle of the field was a tall, narrow chimney of blackened, crumbling brick that pointed like a finger into the sky. The field was enclosed by a rusting iron fence, and the scrolled gate was chained shut and posted with a faded NO TRESPASSING sign.
Rourke gave the gate's chain a yank for the hell of it, but it held fast. “If it was here, then it burned down a long while ago.”
“There might've been records,” Remy said. “If they didn't go up in flames with the building.”
“Yeah. Maybe the local law would know.”
The courthouse, they discovered, was back across the bayou, but they could get there by taking a nearby footbridge. As they crossed the bridge, Rourke looked over the wrought iron railing and down into the brown water where dead leaves floated and bream fed among cattails that had long since gone to seed, and the low sweeping branches of a willow tree blew in the wind like a woman's hair.
…He must have caught some of the town's air of melancholy, because the thought made him feel lost and lonely.
Then he felt Remy slip her hand into his. She didn't say anything, just held his hand, and they finished crossing the bridge together.
Built out of thick gray stone and with crenellated balconies and a pair of turreted towers on either end, the courthouse looked ready to withstand the siege of any army.
They found the parish sheriff alone, seated at his desk in his office, wrapping blue luminescent thread around a fishing hook, making a fly. “It's Sunday,” he said as they came through the open door. “If you're here to confess to the crime of the century, you can damn well wait until tomorrow.”
He cast a sideways glance up, saw Remy, and lurched to his feet, his enormous belly banging so hard into his desk he nearly tipped it over. “Lord-a-mercy,” he said.
Sheriff Pascal Drake had hangdog yellow eyes and was the kind of fat man who was fat all over, even his little fingers and ears were fat. His tan wash-and-wear Sears suit looked in danger of splitting open every time he breathed.
His droopy eyes had fastened onto Remy and stayed there, all the while Rourke showed his credentials and gave an edited version of what they were after. He went on staring in a kind of gaping silence after Rourke was done, then he sighed loudly and shrugged, lifting shoulders that were as round as melons.
“I don't think I'm going to be much help,” he said. “But why don't y'all go ahead and have yourselves a seat?”
The courthouse might have looked like a fantasy fortress on the outside, but the sheriff's office was furnished the same as squad rooms everywhere. Rourke set his fedora down on a metal desk and pulled up a couple of cheap pine ladder-backed chairs, while Pascal Drake took a cob pipe out of his shirt pocket, stuck it in his mouth unlit, and watched Remy Lelourie's every breath.
“The Home, as folks called it,” he began, once they'd all settled, “burned down…oh, we're talking maybe thirty years ago. I got hired on here five years back myself, from over in East Texas, but I've heard some talk about what happened, and it was bad. Seventeen children and three nuns were inside, asleep in their beds, and none of them made it out alive. It was an old Creole raised plantation house, with two centuries' worth of varnish on its walls and floors, and it went up like a torch. By the time the fire was put out, there wasn't anything left but charcoal and ash, and that one lone chimney that still stands to this day.”
“What we're trying to find out,” Rourke said, “is if our murder victim, Father Patrick Walsh, ever lived in the Home, and if anybody around these parts would've known him.”
“Or known his family, maybe,” Remy said. “Before he got orphaned.”
The sheriff looked startled that Remy could talk. He stared at her mouth, scrutinized the rest of her some more, then came back to her mouth.
“Yeah, I can see where y'all are going,” he finally said. “But I can't think of who could help you. Your best bet would've been them nuns who ran the place, but they died in the fire and whatever they knew about any Patrick Walsh would've died with 'em. I can ask around for you, though. There's a bunch of real old-timers who park themselves on the benches outside the Parker Hotel billiard hall every afternoon—if there's anybody left in Paris who might've known your victim, it'd be one of them.”
Rourke took a card out of his pocket, laid it on the desk, picked up his hat in turn, and stood up, holding out his hand. “If you find out anything, I'd appreciate it if you gave me a call.”
The sheriff started to lumber to his feet and knocked into his desk with such force that the laws of physics sat him back down again. He shook Rourke's hand, but his gaze was still on Remy.
“Ma'am,” he said, “I just have to come out and say it—otherwise I'm going to be stewing about it the rest of the evening. It's the gol-darndest thing, but if you're not the spitting image of Remy Lelourie…” He laughed, a big booming laugh that shook his belly like a bowlful of clabber. “Lord-a-mercy. As if Remy Lelourie would come waltzing into the Paris courthouse on a Sunday afternoon. You sure do have the look of her about you, though, even if you do got a few years on her.”
Rourke bit the inside of his cheek.
“Why, Sheriff,” Remy said. She did a Southern belle thing, managing to pout and smile both at the same time. “I do believe that's the nicest thing anybody's said to me in all of my considerable years.” She looked over at Rourke, her dark eyes fairly shimmering with pent-up laughter. “Honey, before we go, don't you think we ought to ask this gentleman if he knows who did for the orphanage before it burned down.”
“Gol-darnit!” Drake exclaimed with a snap of his sausage fingers. “I don't know why I didn't think of him…Louis Toussaint. He did the odd job around the place, and the reason why I know that is because he was one of the first ones they suspected of setting the fire. Turned out he was somewhere else where a good dozen people saw him, and all of 'em white, so he was let off the hook. But some folk even all these years later still hold to the notion that he did it.”
Remy gave him the smile that had lit up the covers of a thousand magazines. “See there, Sheriff. Your astute powers of observation have led us to a clue, after all.”
Pascal Drake's chest swelled, bringing his belly with it, and the desk levitated. “Always happy to oblige, ma'am. And I expect ol' Louis Toussaint'll be obligin', as well. He's probably pushing a hundred now if he's a day—fact is, he's probably Paris's oldest citizen. But his memory's better at recollecting something that happened fifty years ago than what he ate for breakfast this mornin', and there's nothin' he likes more than to engage in a good jawin'. So if there was anything to be told about the Home, he could probably tell you more about it than you'd ever want to hear.”
Rourke put on his hat, gave the crown a tap, and smiled at Remy. “So where can we find the guy?”
The sheriff twisted around in his chair to look at the clock above his head. “What's it now? About three? Then he'd be down at T'Boys, halfway through his third jarful of white lightning.”
'Boys sat at the edge of the bayou, at the end of a rutted, gravel road. To get there, though, you had to park in an empty field next to an old general store that was attached to a filling station, whose pumps were rusting to their blocks, and then follow a path through a stand of cypress down to the water.
A half dozen Negro men were sitting on crates on the store's sagging gallery, playing checkers and chewing on jimsonweed and their memories. When the shiny yellow Bearcat roadster pulled up in a cloud of dust, and a white man and woman got out and started down the path to the colored honky-tonk, the gallery turned so quiet you could hear the old wood settling. It was hard to tell, though, whether they recognized Remy Lelourie or they were just in awe of a white woman passing through the neighborhood, wearing a dress made out of glass and mirrors that shone like a bucketful of stars.
Rourke took Remy's arm to help her around a puddle of stagnant water coated with mosquitoes. They crossed the field, past a big old chinaberry tree, beneath whose shade a farmer was selling fruit off the back end of his truck. The mingling odors of gasoline and overripe blackberries made Rourke nostalgic for those summer days of endless possibilities out at the lake when he was kid.
T'Boys was built long and narrow, like a railroad car. Its corrugated tin roof was rusting through in patches and it had been whitewashed once, maybe back when Louis Toussaint was a boy, but time and the sun had browned it to match the bayou at its back. Nevertheless, its purpose in life was obvious, and it hadn't done anything to change its appearance since Prohibition except to take down its front sign.
The tonk was crowded for a Sunday, but their entrance was met with the same awed silence they'd gotten from the grocery's gallery. It got so quiet you could hear the floorboards, warped from years of spilled booze, creaking beneath their feet and the groan of catgut when the fiddler laid down his fiddle. The place smelled of Saratoga chips fried in chicken fat and the juniper berries that were used to make the gin in the still out back.
A pair of alligator skins, complete with snouts and teeth, were tacked to the knotty pine wall above a bar that was little more than plank boards resting on old ale barrels. Behind the bar and framed by the alligators stood a man who looked tough as jerked meat, and who had eyes that had been around enough blocks to be able to pick out the cop on the corner.
His gaze left Rourke for a half second to take in Remy, widened a little, then came back to Rourke. He put down his glass-polishing rag and crossed his arms over his chest. “Who you lookin' for?” He waited a beat, then added, “Suh.”
Rourke put some bite into his smile, as a way of laying the ground rules: all he wanted was a conversation, not trouble, but what he wanted he would get. “Louis Toussaint,” he said.
The bartender nodded toward the back end of the long room where an ancient mulatto the color of a copper penny sat alone at a table, his gnarled hands wrapped around a jelly jar full of juniper gin.
“Thank you for your help,” Rourke tossed over his shoulder, as he guided Remy with a hand in the small of her back around the rickety chairs and water-ringed tables.
“What's the ol' fool done?” the bartender called after them, but Rourke didn't answer.
Louis Toussaint looked up from under a straw hat stained with age and sweat and watched them come with turquoise eyes set deep in a face as wrinkled as dried snakeskin.
“Lord Gawd,” he said, in a voice that sounded surprisingly robust to be coming out of that face. “I'ma too old to be goin' to jail. What I done, anyways?”
“Nothing, as far as I know,” Rourke said, keeping the edge on his smile for the moment. “We'd just like to ask you a few questions about the old orphanage that burned down. The St. Joseph's Home for Children.”
The old man's lips stretched open to reveal gray gums and a scattering of teeth that were brown and worn to the nub. “So y'all back to thinking this nigger done it, huh?”
“I'm a New Orleans cop, Mr. Toussaint. I don't have jurisdiction here. How about if I fetch some more 'shine from the bar and some food, and my woman and I sit down and we talk?”
The lips stretched open again. “S'long as you buyin', this chile is easy.” His gaze shifted over to Remy. “You Remy Lelourie?”
This time her smile was the one she shared with friends. “That I am, Mr. Toussaint.” She shook the old man's hand and then sat down in the chair Rourke held out for her. “I don't believe I've ever met anyone who's lived a century before.”
Louis Toussaint looked both embarrassed and pleased. “Aw, shucks. It ain't no great accomplishment. I reckon with me, livin's just got to be a habit I can't seem to break.”
Rourke went up to the bar, bought a jug of moonshine, and brought it back to the table along with two more jelly jar glasses. He went back to the bar for the food: plates of alligator smothered with
and three slices of
tarte a la bouille.
By the time he'd brought it all back to the table, Remy was filling up her jar again with more moonshine, and Louis Toussaint was looking considerably more blurred around the edges.
“It's only fair that I warn you, sir,” Rourke said as he pulled out his own chair and sat down, “that as experienced as you no doubt are, there isn't a man alive who can claim to have matched Miss Lelourie jar for jar and lived to tell of it. She's getting on in years now, but in her younger days, she could outdrink a hillbilly at a rooster fight.”