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In the early 1980s, when I was still going steady with Jim Beam straight-up and a beer back, I became part of an exchange program between NOPD and a training academy for police cadets in Dade County, Florida. That meant I did a limited amount of work in a Homicide unit at the Miami P.D. and taught a class in criminal justice at a community college way up on N.W. 27th Avenue, not far from a place called Opa-Locka.
Opa-Locka was a gigantic pink stucco-and-plaster nightmare designed to look like a complex of Arabian mosques. In the early a.m., fog from either the ocean or the Glades, mixed with dust and carbon monoxide, clung like strips of dirty cotton to the decrepit minarets and cracked walls of the buildings. At night the streets were lit by vapor lamps that glowed inside the fog with the dirty iridescence that you associate with security lighting in prison compounds. The palms on the avenues were blighted by disease, the fronds clacking dryly in the fouled air. The yards in the neighborhoods contained more gray sand than grass. Homes that could contain little of value were protected by bars on the windows and razor wire on the fences. Lowrider gangbangers, the broken mufflers of their gas-guzzlers throbbing against the asphalt, smashed liquor bottles on the sidewalks and no one said a word.
For me, it was a place where I didn't have to make comparisons and where each dawn took on the watery hue of a tequila sunrise. If I found myself at first light in Opa-Locka, my choices were usually uncomplicated: I either continued drinking or entered an altered state known as delirium tremens.
Four or five nights a week I deconstructed myself in a bar where people had neither histories nor common geographic origins. Their friendships with one another began and ended at the front door. Most of them drank with a self-deprecating resignation and long ago had given up rationalizing the lives they led, I suspect allowing themselves a certain degree of peace. I never saw any indication they either knew or cared that I was a police officer. In fact, as I write these words today, I'm sure they recognized me as one of their own -- a man who of his own volition had consigned himself to Dante's ninth circle, his hand clasped confidently around a mug of draft with a submerged jigger of whiskey coiling up from the bottom.
But there was one visitor to the bar whom I did call friend. His name was Dallas Klein, a kid who in late '71 had flown a slick through a blistering curtain of RPG and automatic weapons fire to pick up a bunch of stranded LURPs on the Cambodian border. He brought home two Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, and a nervous tic in his face that made you think a bee was buzzing around his left eye.
Like me, he loved Gulf Stream Race Track and the jai alai fronton up the road in Broward County. He also loved the craps table at a private club in Hollywood, a floating poker game in Little Havana, the dogs at Flagler, the trotters at Pompano, the Florida Derby at Hialeah, the rows of gleaming slot machines clanging with a downpour of coins on a cruise to Jamaica.
But he was a good kid, not a drunk, not mean-spirited or resentful yet about the addiction that had already cost him a fiance;e and a two-bedroom stucco house on a canal in Fort Lauderdale. He grinned at his losses, his eyes wrinkling at the corners, as though a humorous acknowledgment of his problem made it less than it was. On Saturdays he ate an early lunch of a hamburger and glass of milk at the bar while he studied the Morning Telegraph, his ink-black hair cut short, his face always good-natured. By one o'clock he and I would be out at the track together, convinced that we knew the future, the drone of the crowd mysteriously erasing any fears of mortality we may have possessed.
On a sunny weekday afternoon, when the jacaranda trees and bougainvillea were in bloom, Dallas strolled into the bar whistling a tune. He'd picked three NFL winners that week and today he'd hit a perfecta and a quinella at Hialeah. He bought a round of well drinks for the house and had dinners of T-bones and Irish potatoes brought in for him and me.
Then two men of a kind you never want to meet came through the front door, the taller one beckoning to the bartender, the shorter man scanning the tables, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the darkness of the bar's interior.
"Got to dee-dee, Dave. Call me," Dallas said, dropping his fork and steak knife in his plate, pulling his leather jacket off the back of his chair.
He was out the back door like a shot.
He made it as far as a lavender Cadillac where a man as big as the sky waited for him, his arms folded on his chest, his wraparound mirror shades swimming with distorted images of minarets and broken glass sprinkled along the top of a stucco wall.
The two men who had come in through the front of the bar followed Dallas outside. I hesitated, then wiped my mouth with my napkin and went outside, too.
The parking area had been created out of crushed building material that was spiked with weeds. The wind was blowing hard, and the royal palms out on the boulevard thrashed and twisted against a perfect blue sky. The three men whom I did not know had formed a circle around Dallas as though each of them had a fixed role he had played many times before.
The driver of the Caddy had the biggest neck I had ever seen on a human being. It was as wide as his jowls, his tie and collar pin like formal dress on a pig. He chewed gum and gazed at the palm trees whipping against the sky, as though he were disengaged from the conversation. The man who had spoken to the bartender was the talker. He wore polyester sports clothes and white loafers and looked like a consumptive, his hair as white as meringue, his shoulders stooped with bone loss, his face netted with the lines of a chain-smoker.
"Whitey is supposed to carry you for sixteen large?" he said. "That ain't his money. He's paying a point and a half vig a week on that. No, Dallas, you don't talk, you listen. Everybody appreciates what you did for your country, but when you owe sixteen large, that war hero shit don't slide down the pipe."
But the man who caught my eye was the short one. He seemed wrapped too tight for his own body, the same way a meth addict seems to boil in his own juices. His mouth was like a horizontal keyhole, the corner of his upper lip exposing his teeth, as though he were starting to grin. He listened intently to every word in the conversation, waiting for the green light to flash, his eyes flickering with anticipation.
The consumptive man rested his palm on Dallas's shoulder. "What? You think we're being hard on you? You want Ernesto to drive us out in the Glades so we can talk there? Whitey likes you, kid. You got no idea how much he likes you, how kind you're being treated here."
"You gentlemen have a problem with my friend Dallas?" I asked.
In the quiet I could hear the palm fronds rattling above the stucco wall, a gust of wind tumbling a piece of newspaper past a spiked iron gate.
"No, we don't got a problem," the short man said, turning toward me, the sole of one shoe grinding on a piece of broken mortar. His hair was peroxided, feathered on the back of his neck. He wore platform shoes and a dark blue suit that was cut so the flaps stuck out from his waist, and a silver shirt dancing with light, and a silk kerchief tied around his throat. His eyes contained a cool green fire whose source a cautious man doesn't probe.
"Dallas has a phone call," I said.
"Take a message," the short man said.
"It's his mother. She really gets mad when Dallas doesn't come to the phone," I said.
"He's a cop," the driver of the Caddy said, removing his shades, pinching the glare out of his eyes.
The short man and the man in polyester sports clothes took my inventory. "You a cop?" the short man said, smiling for the first time.
"You never can tell," I replied.
"Nice place to hang out," he said.
"You bet. If you want a tab, I'll talk to the bartender," I said.
The short man laughed and accepted a stick of gum from the driver. Then he stepped close to Dallas and spoke to him in a whisper, one that caused the blood to drain out of Dallas's face.
After the three men had gotten back into their Caddy and driven away, I asked Dallas what the short man had said.
"Nothing. He's a jerk. Forget it," he said.
"Whitey Bruxal. He runs a book out of a pizza joint in Hallendale."
"You're into him for sixteen grand?"
"I got a handle on it. It's not a problem."
Inside the bar, he pushed aside his food and ordered a Scotch with milk. After three more of the same, the color came back into his cheeks. He blew out his breath and rested his forehead on the heel of his hand.
"Wow," he said quietly, more to himself than to me.
"What did that dude say to you?" I asked.
"One-one-five Coconut Palm Drive."
"I don't follow," I said.
"I have a six-year-old daughter. She lives with her grandmother in the Grove. That's her address," he replied. He stared at me blankly, as though he could not assimilate his own words.
Dallas invited me to his apartment the next evening and cooked hamburgers for us on a hibachi out on a small balcony. Down below were blocks and blocks of one-story houses with gravel-and-tar roofs and yards in which the surfaces of plastic-sided swimming pools wrinkled in the wind. The sun looked broken and red on the horizon, without heat, veiled with smoke from a smoldering fire in the Glades. Dallas showed me pictures of his daughter taken in Orlando and in front of a Ferris wheel at Coney Island. One picture showed her in a snowsuit sewn with rabbit ears that flopped down from the hood. The little girl's hair was gold, her eyes blue, her smile magical.
"What happened to her mom?" I said.
"She took off with a guy who was running coke from the Islands in a cigarette boat. They hit a buoy at fifty knots south of Pine Key. Get this. The guy flew a Cobra in 'Nam. My wife always said she loved a pilot." He turned the burgers on the grill, his eyes concentrated on his task.
I knew what was coming next.
"Had a note under my door from Whitey this morning. I might have to take my little girl and blow Dodge," he said.
I cracked a beer and leaned on the railing. In the distance I could see car lights flowing down a wide bend in an expressway. I sipped from the beer and said nothing in reply to his statement.
"I made a salad. Why don't you dump it in a couple of bowls?" he said.
The silence hung between us. "I've got a couple of grand in a savings account. You want to borrow it?" I said, then raised the bottle to my mouth, waiting for the weary confirmation of the frailty and self-interest that exists in us all.
"No, thanks," he said.
I lowered the bottle and looked at him.
"It's just a matter of doing the smart thing," he said. "I got to think it through. Whitey's not a bad guy, he's just got his -- "
"What?" I said.
"His own obligations. Miami is supposed to be an open city. No contract hits, no one guy gets a lock on the action. But nothing goes on here that doesn't get pieced off to the New York families. You see my drift?"
"Not really," I said, not wanting to know more about Dallas's involvement with Miami's underworld.
"What a life, huh?" he said.
"Yeah," I replied. "Make mine rare, will you?"
"Rare it is, Loot," he said, squeezing the grease out of a patty, wincing in the flare of smoke and flame.
I washed my hands before we ate. Dallas's work uniform hung inside a clear plastic dry cleaner's bag on a hook in the bathroom, the logo of an armored car company sewn above the coat pocket.
But Dallas did not blow Dodge. Instead, I saw him talking on a street corner in Opa-Locka with Ernesto, the leviathan driver of the lavender Cadillac. The two of them got in the Caddy and drove away, Dallas's face looking much older than he was. Twice I asked Dallas to go to the track with me, but he claimed he was not only broke but entering a twelve-step program for people with a gambling addiction. "I'll miss it, but everything comes to an end, right?" he said.
Spring came and I disengaged from Dallas and his problems. Besides, I had plenty of my own. I was trying to get through each morning with aspirin, vitamin B, and mouth spray, but my lend-lease colleagues at the Miami P.D. and the cadets in my class at the community college were onto me. My irritability, the tremble in my hands, my need for a vodka collins by noon became my persona. The pity and ennui I saw in the eyes of others followed me into my sleep.
I went three weeks without a drink. I jogged at dawn on Hollywood Beach, snorkeled at the tip of a coral jetty swarming with clown fish, pumped iron at Vic Tanney's, ate seafood and green salads at a surfside restaurant, and watched my body turn as hard and brown as a worn saddle.
Then on a beautiful Friday night, with no catalyst at work, with a song in my heart, I put on a new sports jacket, my shined loafers, and a pair of pressed slacks, and joined the crew up in Opa-Locka and pretended once again I could drop lighted matches in a gas tank without consequence.
That's when I got my second look at the short man who worked as a collector for Whitey Bruxal. He stood in the open doorway, scanning the interior, forcing others to walk around him. Then he went to the bar and spoke to the bartender, and I heard him use Dallas's name. The bartender shook his head and occupied himself with washing beer mugs in a tin sink. But the collector was not easily discouraged. He ordered a 7Up on ice and began peeling a hard-boiled egg on top of a paper napkin, wiping the tiny pieces of shell off his fingernails onto the paper, his eyes on the door.
Stay out of it, I heard a voice say inside my head.
I went to the men's room and came back to my table and sat down. The collector was salting his egg, chewing on the top of it reflectively while he stared out the front door into the street, his shoes hooked into the aluminum rails of the barstool. He wore stonewashed jeans and a yellow see-through shirt and a porkpie hat tipped forward on his brow. His back was triangular, like a martial arts fighter's, his facial skin as bright and hard-looking as ceramic.
I stood next to him at the bar and waited for him to turn toward me. "Live in the neighborhood?" I asked.
"Right," he said.
"I never did catch your name."
"It's Elmer Fudd. What's yours?"
"I like those platform shoes. A lot of Superfly types are wearing those these days. Ever see that movie Superfly? It's about black dope pushers and pimps and white street punks who think they're made guys," I said.
He brushed off his fingers on his napkin and pulled at an earlobe, then motioned to the bartender. "Fix Smiley here whatever he's drinking," he said.
"You see, when you give names to other people, it's not just disrespectful, it's a form of presumption."
"'Presumption'?" he replied, nodding profoundly.
"Yeah, you're indicating you have the right to say whatever you wish to other people. It's not a good habit."
He nodded again. "Right now I'm waiting on somebody and I need a little solitude. Do me a favor and don't piss in my cage, okay?"
"Wouldn't dream of it," I said. "Were you in 'Nam? Dallas was. He's a good kid."
The collector got off the barstool and combed his hair, his eyes roving over the crooked smile on my face, the booze stains on my shirt, the table-wet on the sleeves of my new jacket, the fact that I had to keep one arm on the bar to steady myself. "I stacked time in a place you couldn't imagine in your worst dreams," he said.
"Yeah, I've heard the bitch suite up at Raiford is a hard ride," I said.
He put away his comb and looked at his reflection in the bar mirror. His cheeks were pooled with tiny pits, like the incisions of a knifepoint. He placed a roll of breath mints by my hand. "No, go ahead and take them. Gratis from Elmer Fudd. Enjoy."
My tenure with the exchange program was running out in June, and I wanted to carry good memories of South Florida back to New Orleans. I boat-fished out of Key West in the most beautiful water I had ever seen. It was green, as clear as glass, with pools of indigo blue in it that floated like broken clouds of ink. I visited the old federal prison at Fort Jefferson on a blistering-hot day and swore I could smell the land breeze blowing from Cuba. I slept in a pup tent on a coral shelf above water that was threaded with the smoky green phosphorescence of organisms that had no names. I saw the ocean turn wine-dark under a sky bursting with constellations and knew that the truth of Homer's line would never be diminished by time.
But wherever I went, a frozen daiquiri winked at me from an outdoor bar roofed by palm fronds; beaded cans of Budweiser protruded from the ice in a fisherman's cooler; a bottle of Cold Duck clamped between a woman's thighs burst alive with the pop of a cork and a geyser of foam.
Delirium tremens or not, I knew I was in for the whole ride.
During my last week in Miami, I drove up to Opa-Locka to pay my bar tab and buy a round for whoever was trying to escape the noonday heat. The bar was dark and cool inside, the street out beyond the colonnade baking under a white sun. I knocked back a brandy and soda, counted my change, and prepared to go. Through the front window I could see dust blowing along the pavement, heat waves bouncing off a parked car, a bare-chested black man drilling a jackhammer into the asphalt, his skin pouring sweat. I ordered another brandy and soda and looked at the order-out menu on the bar. Then I tossed the menu aside, dropped a half dollar into the jukebox, and kicked it on up into overdrive with four inches of Beam and a beer back.
By three-thirty I was seriously in the bag. Across the street, I saw an armored car pull up in front of the bank. It was a shimmering boxlike vehicle with a red-and-white paint job that pulsed in the heat like a fresh dental extraction. Three armed guards piled out, opened up the back, and began to lift big canvas satchels with padlocks on the tops onto the pavement. One of the guards was Dallas Klein.
I crossed the street, my drink in one hand, shading my eyes from the glare with the other.
"Where you been, fellow? I've had to knock 'em back for both of us," I said.
Dallas was standing in the shade of the bank, the armpits of his gray shirt dark with moisture. "I'm on the job, here, Dave. Catch you later," he said.
"What time you get off?"
"I said beat it."
"This is a security area. You're not supposed to be here."
"You've got things mixed up, podna. I'm a police officer."
"What you are is shit-faced. Now stop making an ass out of yourself and go back in the bar."
I turned around and walked toward the colonnade, the sun like a wet flame on my skin. I looked back over my shoulder at Dallas, who was now busy with his work, hefting bags of money and carrying them into the bank. My face felt small and tight, the skin dead, freeze-dried in the heat.
"Something wrong, Dave?" the bartender asked.
"Yeah, my glass is empty. Double Beam, beer back," I said.
While he poured into a shot glass from a bourbon bottle with a chrome nipple on it, I blotted the humidity out of my eyes with a paper napkin, my ears still ringing from the insult Dallas had delivered me. I looked back out the window at the armored car. But the scene had suddenly become surreal, divorced from any of my expectations about that day in my life. A white van came out of nowhere and braked behind the armored car. Four men with cut-down shotguns jumped out on the sidewalk, leaving the driver behind the wheel. They were all dressed in work clothes, their hair and facial features a beige-colored blur under nylon stockings.
"Call nine-one-one, say, 'Armed robbery in progress,' and give this address," I said to the bartender.
I unsnapped the .25 automatic that was strapped to my right ankle. When I got off the barstool, one side of the room seemed to collapse under my foot.
"I wouldn't go out there," the bartender said.
"I'm a cop," I said.
I thought my grandiose words could somehow change the condition I was in. But in the bartender's eyes I saw a sad knowledge that no amount of rhetoric would ever influence. I walked unsteadily to the front door and jerked it open. The outside world ballooned through the door in a rush of superheated air and carbon monoxide. The street I looked out upon was no longer a part of South Florida. It was a wind-sculpted place in the desert, bleached the color of a biscuit by the sun, home to carrion birds and jackals and blowflies. It was the place that awaits us all, one we don't allow ourselves to see in our dreams. The .25 auto felt as small and light as plastic in my hand.
I positioned myself behind one of the Arabic columns under the colonnade and steadied my automatic against the stone. "Police officer! Put down your weapons and get on your faces!" I shouted.
But the men robbing the armored car did little more than glance in my direction, as they would at a minor annoyance. It was obvious their timing on the takedown of the car had gone amiss. The van had arrived seconds later than it should have, allowing the guards time to start carrying the canvas money satchels inside the bank. The car guards and the elderly bank guard were down on their knees, against the wall of the bank, their fingers laced behind their heads. The robbers simply needed to pick up the satchels that were within easy reach, head out of Opa-Locka, and dump the van, which was undoubtedly stolen. A few minutes later, they could have disappeared back into the anonymity of the city. But one of them had gotten greedy. One of them had gone into the bank to retrieve the satchels there, racking a round into the chamber of his shotgun.
A teller was already pushing the vault door shut. The robber shot him at point-blank range.
When the shooter emerged from the bank, he was dragging two satchels that were whipsawed with blood, his pump propped against his hip.
"I said on your faces, you motherfuckers!" I shouted.
The first shotgun blast from the robbers on the sidewalk patterned all over the column and the metal door of the bar. A second one caved the window. Then the robbers were shooting at me in unison, blowing dust and powdered stone in the air, peppering the metal door with indentations that looked like shiny nickels.
I crouched at the bottom of the column, unable to move or return fire without being chewed up. Then I heard someone shouting, "Go, go, go, go!" and the sounds of the van doors slamming shut.
It should have been over. But it wasn't. As the van pulled away from the curb, I was sure I heard the robber in the passenger seat speak to Dallas. "You're a joke, man," he said. Then he extended his shotgun straight out from the vehicle and blew most of Dallas Klein's head off.
Copyright © 2006 by James Lee Burke
The robbery of the armored car and the double homicide were never solved. I gave the FBI and the Dade County authorities as much information as I could about Dallas Klein's relationship to the bookie Whitey Bruxal and the three collectors who were trying to dun Dallas for his sixteen-thousand-dollar tab. But I was firing in the well. The three collectors all had alibis, were lawyered-up and deaf, dumb, and don't know from the jump. Whitey Bruxal returned from New Jersey of his own volition and allowed himself to be interviewed three times without benefit of counsel. I came to believe that the account I had given the authorities of Dallas's connection to the gamblers was being looked upon with the same degree of credibility cops usually give the words of all drunks and junkies: You can always tell when they're lying -- their lips are moving.
I hung up my brief tenure with law enforcement in the tropics, attended my first A.A. meeting, a sunrise group that met in a grove of coconut palms on Fort Lauderdale Beach, and caught a flight the same day back to New Orleans.
That was over two decades ago. I believed Dallas made a deal with the devil and lost. I tried to stop the robbery and failed, but at least I tried, and I did not hold myself responsible for his death. At least, that was what I told myself. Later, I was fired from NOPD. Perhaps my dismissal was my fault, perhaps not. Frankly, I didn't care. I went back sober to my birthplace, New Iberia, Louisiana, a small city on Bayou Teche, down by the Gulf of Mexico, and started my life over. It's always the first inning, I said. And this time I was right about something.
Today I'm a detective with the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Department. I make a modest salary and live on Bayou Teche with my wife, Molly, who is a former nun, in a shotgun house shaded by oak trees that are at least two hundred years old. With a few exceptions, the cases I work are not spectacular ones. But in the spring of last year, on a lazy afternoon, just about the time the azaleas burst into bloom, I caught an unusual case that at first seemed inconsequential, the kind that gets buried in a file drawer or hopefully absorbed by a federal agency. Later, I would remember the pro forma beginnings of the investigation like the tremolo you might experience through the structure of an airplane just before oil from an engine streaks across your window.
A call came in from the operator of a truck stop on the parish line. A woman who was waiting on a tire repair had gone into the casino and removed a one-hundred-dollar bill from her purse, then had changed her mind and taken out a fifty and given it to the clerk.
"Sorry, I didn't realize I had a smaller denomination," she said.
"The hundred is no problem," the clerk said, waiting.
"No, that's okay," she replied.
He noticed she had two one-hundred bills tucked in her wallet, both of them stained along the edges with a red dye.
I parked the cruiser in front of the truck stop and entered through the side door, into the casino section, and saw a blond woman seated at a stool in front of a video poker machine, feeding a five-dollar bill into the slot. She was dressed in jeans and a yellow cowboy shirt. She sipped at her coffee, her face reflective as she studied the row of electronic playing cards on the screen.
"I'm Detective Dave Robicheaux, with the Iberia Sheriff's Department," I said.
"Hi," she said, turning her eyes on me. They were blue and full of light, without any sense of apprehension that I could see.
"You have some currency in your wallet that perhaps we need to take a look at," I said.
"You were going to give the clerk a hundred-dollar bill. Could I see it?"
She smiled. "Sure," she said, and took her wallet from her purse. "Actually I have two of them. Are you looking for counterfeit money or something?"
"We let the Feds worry about stuff like that," I said, taking the bills from her hand. "Where'd you get these?"
"At a casino in Biloxi," she replied.
"You mind if I write down the serial numbers?" I said. "While we're at this, can you give me some identification?"
She handed me a Florida driver's license. "I'm living in Lafayette now. I'm not in trouble, am I?" she said. Her face was tilted up into mine, her eyes radiantly blue, sincere, not blinking.
"Can you show me something with your Lafayette address on it? I'd also like a phone number in case we have to reach you."
"I don't know what's going on," she said.
"Sometimes a low-yield explosive device containing marker dye is placed among bundles of currency that are stolen from banks or armored cars. When the device goes off, the currency is stained so the robbers can't use it."
"So maybe my hundreds are stolen?" she said, handing me a receipt for a twenty-three-hundred deposit on an apartment in Lafayette.
"Probably not. Dye ends up on money all the time. Your name is Trish Klein?"
"Yes, I just moved here from Miami."
"Ever hear of a guy named Dallas Klein?"
Her eyes held on mine, her thoughts, whatever they were, impossible to read. "Why do you ask?" she said.
"I knew a guy by that name who flew a chopper in Vietnam. He was from Miami."
"That was my father," she said.
I finished copying her address and phone number off her deposit receipt and handed it back to her. "It's nice to meet you, Ms. Klein. Your dad was a stand-up guy," I said.
"You knew him in Vietnam?"
"I knew him," I said. I glanced past her shoulder at the video screen. "You've got four kings. Welcome to Louisiana."
On the way back to the office, I asked myself why I hadn't told her I had been friends with her father in Miami. But maybe the memory was just too unpleasant to revisit, I thought. Maybe she had never learned that her father had been enticed into aiding and abetting the robbery of the armored car, if indeed that's what happened. Why let the past injure the innocent? I told myself.
No, that was not it. She had paused before she acknowledged her father. As any investigative law officer will tell you, when witnesses or suspects or even ordinary citizens hesitate before answering a question, it's because they are deciding whether they should either conceal information or outright lie about it.
It was almost 5 p.m. when I got back to the department. Wally, our dispatcher, told me there had been a homicide by gunshot wound on the bayou, amid a cluster of houses upstream from the sugar mill. I gave the serial numbers on the bills to a detective in our robbery unit and asked him to run them through our Internet connection to the U.S. Treasury Department. Then I tried to forget the image of Dallas Klein kneeling on a sidewalk, his fingers laced behind his head.
The sheriff of Iberia Parish was Helen Soileau. She had begun her career in law enforcement as a meter maid with NOPD, then had patrolled the Desire district and Gird Town and worked Narcotics in the French Quarter. She wore jeans or slacks, carried herself like a male athlete, and possessed a strange kind of androgynous beauty. Her face could be sensuous and warm, almost seductive, but it could change while you were talking to her, as though not only two genders but two different people lived inside her. People who saw her in one photograph often did not recognize her in another.
I not only admired Helen, I loved her. She was honest and loyal and never afraid. Anyone who showed disrespect regarding her sexuality did so only once.
A couple of years back, a New Iberia lowlife by the name of Jimmy Dean Styles, who ran a dump called the Boom Boom Room and who would eventually rape and murder a sixteen-year-old girl with a shotgun, was drinking from a bottle of chocolate milk behind his bar while he casually told Helen that even though he had overheard her male fellow officers ridiculing her at the McDonald's on East Main, he personally considered her "a dyke who's straight-up and don't take shit from nobody."
Then he upended his bottle of chocolate milk, his eyes smiling at the barb he had inserted under her skin.
Helen slipped her baton so quickly from the ring on her belt, he didn't even have time to flinch before glass and chocolate milk and blood exploded all over his face. Then Helen dropped her business card on the bar and said, "Have a nice day. Call me again if I can be of any more assistance." That was Helen Soileau.
I tapped on her office door, then opened it. "Wally says we have a homicide by the mill?" I said.
"The nine-one-one came in about fifteen minutes ago. The coroner should be there now. Where were you?"
"A couple of bills with dye on them showed up at the new truck stop. Who's the victim?"
She glanced down at a notepad. "Yvonne Darbonne. She waited tables at Victor's. You know her?"
"Yeah, I think I do. Her daddy used to cane-farm and run a bar up the bayou?"
"Bring the cruiser around and let's find out," she replied.
We drove through downtown and crossed the drawbridge over Bayou Teche at Burke Street, then crossed the bayou again and headed up a broken two-lane road that led past an enormous sugar mill that almost blocked out the sky. At night, during the grinding season, the fires and electric lights and the giant white clouds of steam that rose from the stacks could be seen from miles away, not unlike a medieval painting depicting Dante's vision of the next world.
Hunkered between the mill and bayou was a community of dull green company-constructed houses left over from an earlier time. In the winter, the stench from the mill and the threadlike pieces of carbon floating off the smokestacks blew with a northern breeze directly onto the houses down below. The yards were dirt, packed as hard as brick, strung with wash lines, the broken windows repaired with tape and plastic bags. Several uniformed cops, two forensic chemists from the lab, the coroner, three cruisers, and an ambulance were already at the scene.
"Who called it in?" I asked Helen as we crossed a rain ditch and pulled into a dirt driveway.
"A neighbor heard the shot. She thought it was a firecracker, then she looked out the window and saw the girl on the ground."
"She didn't see anyone else?"
"She thought she heard a car drive away, but she saw no one."
The girl's father, whose name was Cesaire Darbonne, had just arrived. Even though he was almost seventy, he was a trim, comely man, with neatly parted steel-colored hair and pale turquoise eyes. His skin was brown, as smooth as tallow, marked on one arm by a chain of white scars that looked like small misshapen hearts. He was also coming apart at the seams.
Two cops had to restrain him from rushing to where his daughter lay in the backyard. They walked him back to a cruiser in the driveway and sat him down in the passenger seat, then stood in front of the open door so he couldn't get out. "That's my li'l girl back there. Her birt'day was tomorrow. Who done somet'ing like this to that li'l girl? She ain't but eighteen years old," he said.
But the answer was probably not one he wanted to hear. His daughter lay in the Johnson grass by a doorless wood garage, her body in the shape of a question mark. She was wearing a beige skirt and tennis shoes without socks and a T-shirt with a winged horse emblazoned on the front. A blue-black .22 revolver with walnut grips lay by her hand. The entry wound was in the center of her forehead. Her hair, which was dark red, had fallen down in a skein across her face.
I squatted down next to her and picked up the revolver by inserting a pencil through the trigger guard. The cylinder looked like one that had been drilled to hold Magnums, and all the chambers other than the one under hammer were loaded and appeared unfired. A cell phone lay in the grass, less than three feet away. Helen handed me a Ziploc evidence bag. "Powder burns?" she said.
"Enough to put out an eye," I replied.
Helen squatted down next to me, her forearms resting on her knees, her face lowered. "You ever see a woman shoot herself in the face?" she asked.
"Nope, but suicides do weird things," I replied.
Helen stood up, chewing on a weed stem. The sun went behind a cloud, then the wind came up and we could smell the heaviness of the bayou. "Bag the cell phone and get it to the lab. Find out who she was talking to before she caught the bus. Has the old man got other kids?"
"To my knowledge, Yvonne was the only one," I replied.
"Ready to do it?" she said.
"Not really," I said, rising to my feet, my knees popping like those of a man who was far too old for the task that had been given him.
Helen and I approached Mr. Darbonne, who was still sitting in the back of the cruiser. His khakis were starched and clean, his denim shirt freshly ironed. He looked up at us as though we were the bearers of information that somehow could change the events that had just crashed upon his life like an asteroid. I told him we were sorry about his loss, but my words didn't seem to register.
"Who was your daughter with today, Mr. Darbonne?" I asked.
"She gone over to the university for orientation. She was starting classes this summer," he replied. Then he realized he hadn't answered my question. "I ain't sure who she gone wit'."
"Was she dating anyone?" I asked.
"Maybe. She always met him in town. She didn't want to tell me who he was."
"Has she been depressed or angry or upset about anything?" Helen said.
"She was happy. She was a good girl. She didn't smoke or drink. She never been in no trouble. I was looking for work today in Jeanerette. If I'd stayed home, me -- " His eyes started to water.
"Did she own a pistol?" I asked.
"What she gonna do wit' a gun? She read books. She wanted to study journalism and history. She wrote in her diary. She was always going to the movies."
Helen and I looked at each other. "Can you show us her room, sir?" I said.
The wood floors inside the house were scrubbed, the furniture dusted, the kitchen neat, the dishes washed, the beds made. An ancient purple couch was positioned in front of a small television set. Imitation lace doilies had been spread on the arms and headrest of the couch. In the hallway a black-and-white photo yellowed at the corners showed the father at a hunting camp, surrounded by friends in canvas coats and caps and rubber boots and a giant semicircle of dead ducks at their feet. Yvonne's dresser and shelves were covered with stuffed animals, worn paperback novels, and books on loan from the city library. Among the titles were The Moon and Sixpence and The Scarlet Letter.
"We'd like to take her diary with us, sir. I promise it will be returned to you," I said.
He hesitated. Then his eyes left mine and looked out the window. Two paramedics were placing a gurney in the back of the ambulance. The body bag that contained the earthly remains of Yvonne Darbonne had been zipped over her face, within seconds erasing the identity she had woken with that morning. The straps and vinyl that held her form against the gurney seemed to have shrunken her size and substance to insignificance. Cesaire Darbonne began to run toward the back door.
"Don't do that, sir. I give you my word your daughter's person will be treated with respect," Helen said, stepping in his way, holding up her palms against the air.
He turned from us and began to weep, his back shaking. "She met this boy in town 'cause she was 'shamed of her house. One night she walked all the way home from the bowling alley, wit' cars going by her at sixty miles an hour. I couldn't find work, me. I farmed t'irty acres of cane for forty years, but now I cain't find no work."
Before we left, we spoke to the neighbor who had made the "shots fired" call. She was in her late-middle years and was a member of that ill-defined racial group sometimes called "Creoles" or sometimes "people of color." The term "Creole" originally meant a second-generation colonial whose parentage was either French or Spanish or both. Today, the term indicates someone whose bloodline is probably French, Indian, and Afro-American. This lady's name was Narcisse Ladrine and she insisted she had not witnessed the shooting or a car or person leaving the scene.
"But you heard a vehicle driving away?" I said.
"I ain't sure," she said. She wore a print dress that fit her like a potato sack and was so wash-faded you could see the outline of her undergarments through the fabric.
"Try to remember," I said. "Was it a sound like a truck? Did it make a lot of noise? Maybe the muffler was rusted out?"
"When you hear a gunshot, you ain't listening for other t'ings."
She had a point. "Did you see anyone else on the street?" I asked.
"There was a black man on a bicycle picking up bottles and cans out of the ditch." Then she thought about what she had just said. "Except that was a lot earlier. No, I ain't seen nobody else out there."
We went back up the road and checked with the security office at the sugar mill. No one there had seen any unusual activity near the mill or in the community of frame houses by the bayou. In fact, no one at the security office even knew a homicide had occurred there.
As we drove back toward the department, a rainstorm swept across the wetlands and pounded the cruiser and scattered hailstones like pieces of smoking dry ice on the road. Back at the office, I began the paperwork on the death of Yvonne Darbonne. I had completely forgotten the matter of the dye-marked one-hundred bills in the possession of Trish Klein, the daughter of my murdered gambling friend in Miami. Just before quitting time, Helen opened my door. "We got a hit on those serial numbers," she said. "The bills came from the robbery of a savings and loan company in Mobile."
Helen's announcement wasn't what I wanted to hear. "I'll get ahold of the woman tomorrow," I said.
"It gets better. The bills from the robbery have been showing up in casinos and at racetracks all along the Gulf Coast," she said.
"The Klein woman says she got hers at a casino in Biloxi."
"Here's an interesting footnote. The Treasury guys think the savings and loan company may be a laundry for the Mob. The wiseguys got ripped off by some bank thieves who didn't get the word. What's the background on this Klein woman?"
I told her about the shotgun slaying of Dallas Klein in Opa-Locka, Florida, years ago. Through my second-story window I could see rain hitting on the tops of the crypts in St. Peter's Cemetery.
"You were there when he died?" she said.
"Yeah," I said, my voice catching slightly.
"Wrap up our end on this and give it to the Feds. You copy on that?"
"Absolutely," I replied.
I drove home at 5 p.m. and parked my pickup truck under the porte cochere attached to the shotgun house where Molly and I live in what is called the historical district of New Iberia. Our home is a modest one compared to the Victorian and antebellum structures that define most of East Main, but nonetheless it is a beautiful old place, built of cypress and oak, long and square in shape, like a boxcar, with high ceilings and windows, a small gallery and peaked tin roof, and ventilated green shutters that you can latch over the glass during hurricane season.
The flower beds are planted with azaleas, lilies, hibiscus, philodendron, and rosebushes in the sun and caladiums and hydrangeas in the shade. The yard is over an acre in size and covered with pecan trees, slash pine, and live oaks. The back of the property slopes down to the Teche, and late at night barges and tugboats with green and red running lights drone heavily through the drawbridge at Burke Street on their way to Morgan City. At early dawn there is often ground fog in the trees and on the bayou, and inside it you can sometimes hear a gator flopping or ducks wimpling in the shallows.
Our elderly three-legged pet coon, named Tripod, lives in a hutch in the backyard. His sidekick is an unneutered male cat by the name of Snuggs. Snuggs has a neck like a fireplug and a body that ripples with muscle when he walks. He wears his chewed ears and the pink scars inside his short white hair like badges of honor. The only dogs he allows in the yard are those who have received Tripod's stamp of approval.
Our next-door neighbor is Miss Ellen Deschamps, an eighty-three-year-old graduate of Millsaps College who feeds every stray cat in New Iberia. She despises people who litter and once hit a man in the head with a bag of carrots for dumping his automobile's ashtray in the Winn-Dixie parking lot. She also considers Snuggs a profligate interloper but feeds him just the same. Early in the morning I can see Miss Ellen through the bamboo border on our property, feeding her cats or at work in her garden, the big pockets of her apron stuffed with tools and packets of seed. The image of Miss Ellen bending to her tasks on a daily basis, indifferent to the role of eccentric imposed on her by others, always makes me feel better about the world.
Our little spot on East Main is a fine place to live, and the woman I share it with is a person who lays no claim on courage or devotion or resilience but possesses all those virtues in exceptional fashion without ever being conscious of them. Before our marriage, her name was Sister Molly Boyle. In her religious life she had worked in a Maryknoll mission in Guatemala where the Indians were massacred by the army as an object lesson to leftist rebels. Later, she organized cane workers in St. Mary Parish, here in southwest Louisiana, and built homes for the poor. Then she left the religious order to which she belonged and married an alcoholic homicide detective with a long history of violence, and took up residence here, on Bayou Teche, along with Tripod and Snuggs and my adopted daughter, Alafair, who was studying psychology and English at Reed College in Portland.
"What's happenin', trooper?" she said when I walked into the kitchen.
She was washing and breaking up lettuce under the faucet, tearing it into chunks with her fingers. Her hair was dark red and cut short, and there was a spray of sun freckles on her arms, neck, and shoulders. Her father had been a retired United States Army line sergeant and later a police officer in Port Arthur, Texas. She spoke of him often and fondly, and I suspected some of her populist, blue-collar attitudes and her ability to do many things with her hands came from him.
I touched her neck and the tips of her hair, then squeezed her shoulders. Molly's hair was the same shade of red as the dead girl's by the mill, and I tried to push the image of the wound in the girl's forehead out of my mind. Molly turned around and looked at me. Her eyes were wide-set and bold and always hard to stare down. "Something happen today?" she said.
"There was a homicide up by the mill. A girl by the name of Yvonne Darbonne. She was about to start UL," I said.
"You knew her?"
"I know her dad. He lost his farm a few years back."
"She was murdered?"
"It looks like a suicide, but -- "
"Nothing. Let me help with supper," I said, and began taking dishes down from the cabinet.
By sunset the rain had stopped and I walked by myself down to the bayou's edge. In the west, the sky was the soft pink of a flamingo's wing, the air heavy and damp and clean-smelling. Water dripped from the trees onto the bayou's surface, creating a chain of rings that floated away in the current. But the mildness of the evening and the dripping sound of rainwater onto the bayou could not free me from the image of Yvonne Darbonne curled in the dirt, the red hair that had fallen over her wound tousled by the wind.
Suicides fall into categories. Some victims probably manufacture an internal psychodrama as a way of asking for help, then drift too far across the line. The clinically depressed do it in closed garages or with pills and booze while they listen to Bole;ro or "Clair de lune." Jumpers find audiences and sail out among the stars. Some fantasize a script in which they transcend their own deaths. In their imagination they watch from above while others find their bodies in horror and are trapped inside a legacy of guilt and grief for the rest of their lives.
But the ones who do it with high-powered firearms in the mouth or razors high up on the forearms, not on the wrists, are often filled with unrelieved rage at themselves. Female suicides are seldom if ever found in the last category.
Was Cesaire Darbonne's information correct about his daughter? Did she not drink or smoke? Had she always been happy? What could cause someone that young and beautiful and full of promise to fire a bullet into the center of her forehead? Or had someone else been at the scene also?
The next day our coroner, Koko Hebert, lumbered into my office. Koko was one of the saddest-looking human beings I had ever known. His body was shaped like a soft-sided pyramid. His breath wheezed in his chest. He stank of nicotine and beer sweat, and sometimes trailed an odor that was worse, one that made me think of a mortuary in Vietnam after the power had failed.
Koko's cynicism and anger were palpable. But his son had been killed in Iraq, and I had come to believe that his daily assault on the sensibilities of others was his own strange way of asking for help.
The grass was green and the sun was shining outside my window, but when Koko spread his buttocks on a chair in front of my desk, the sun might just as well have gone into eclipse. He took a huge drag off his cigarette, his brow furrowing as though his inhalation of cancer-causing chemicals were a moment of metaphysical importance.
"Would you not smoke in here?" I said.
He took a coffee cup off my desk and ground out his cigarette in it. "You want the post on the Darbonne girl or you want to tell me you don't have bad habits?" he asked.
"I'm happy you came by."
"Right. The lab call you yet?"
"We swabbed both her hands. She was the shooter. It's down as a suicide."
"You don't have confidence in the atomic absorption test?"
"Let's get something straight on this one, Koko. I appreciate the work you do. But I want the abrasive rhetoric out of my face."
I could hear the hum of the air conditioner in the silence. "There is no false positive here. She had powder residue on both hands. She inverted the pistol and fired it straight into her forehead. It's a suicide, plain and simple."
"Her father said she didn't drink or use. She was planning to start college. Why does a kid like that want to blow herself away? How did she end up in her own yard with a revolver her father never saw before?"
"Maybe I was looking at the wrong tox screen. The one that had Yvonne Darbonne's name on it showed she was loaded on alcohol, weed, and Ecstasy. When I opened her up, I thought I'd put my hand in a punch bowl, burgundy and fruit, to be exact. She had also engaged in recent sexual intercourse, with multiple partners. In my opinion, there was not forced penetration, either. There was one bruise on the thigh, but considering the number of partners she had, that's not unusual. I suspect she got stoned and loaded and was pumping it in four-four time."
"What do you get out of it, Koko?"
"Out of what?"
"Offending people, testing them."
He scratched the inside of his thigh, as though a mosquito bite were itching him beyond any level of tolerance. "If I go to meetings, can I learn how to use psychobabble like that?" he said.
I let out my breath and rubbed my temples. "What's the rest?" I asked.
"There is no 'rest.' She was drunk and stoned and she balled a bunch of guys who didn't bother to use rubbers," he said. "You're wondering why a kid like that would kill herself?"
Right after Koko left the office, our forensic chemist, Mack Bertrand, called from the Acadiana Crime Lab. Mack was a decent, cheerful, pipe-smoking family man and one of the best crime scene investigators I had ever known. "We ran the weapon in the Darbonne shooting," he said. "It was reported stolen out of a fraternity house at Ole Miss in 1999."
"Any other prints besides the DOA's?"
"It was oiled and cleaned recently. There were a couple of smears, but not enough to run through AFIS. Where you going with this, Dave?"
"It's a suicide, podna. Her thumb pulled the trigger. Her fingerprints were on the back of the frame. I think she turned the pistol around and squeezed off one right into her face."
"What'd you get out of her cell phone?"
"Mostly numbers of kids at New Iberia High. Nothing unusual. Except..."
"Go ahead, Mack."
"She made two calls during the week to the home of Bello Lujan."
In my mind's eye I saw a sun-browned man wearing white jodhpurs, with swirls of black hair on his arms. At least that was Bello's image today, although I had known him in an earlier and much different incarnation. "Why would she be calling a guy like that?" I said.
"He's got a kid at UL. Maybe Bello's kid and the vic knew each other." Then Mack paused. "Dave?"
"The girl took her life. Nothing will undo that. Bello wasn't born. He was poured out of a colostomy bag. Leave him alone."
"That's strong for you, Mack."
"Not when it comes to Bello Lujan," he replied.
Have you ever seen someone cause a disastrous accident by driving so slowly that others are forced to pass him on a hill or curve? Or perhaps a driver running a yellow light, trapping a turning vehicle in the intersection so that it is exposed to high-speed traffic on its flank? The person responsible for the accident rarely looks in his rearview mirror and is seldom brought to justice. I wondered if that would prove to be the case with Yvonne Darbonne.
I looked at my watch. It was 11:05 and I still hadn't pursued the matter of the dye-marked bills in the possession of Dallas Klein's daughter. I also had a hit-and-run homicide case on my desk, three cold cases involving disappearances from ten years back, and a gang- banger shooting that had left two dope dealers on Ann Street peppered with rounds from a .25 auto.
Welcome to small-town America in the spring of 2005.
Yvonne Darbonne's diary lay on my desk. It had a sky-blue vinyl cover with a sprinkle of sunflowers emblazoned on one corner. The first entry was dated three months earlier. It read:
Went with him to City Park and threw bread to the ducks and fox squirrels. He put his windbreaker on my shoulders when it got cold. His cheeks were red as apples.
She had written on perhaps thirty pages of the book. She had used few names of people and no family names. The last entries seemed filled with happiness and romance and did not indicate any sense of emotional conflict that I could see. In fact, her handwriting and sentence structure and her general grasp of the world appeared to be those of a sensible and mature person. I looked at my watch and all the case files stacked on my desk and all the work sitting in my intake basket. Yvonne Darbonne's death was going down as a suicide. My function was over, I told myself. I placed the diary in a desk drawer, closed the drawer, and drove to Lafayette to interview Trish Klein.
Copyright © 2006 by James Lee Burke