THE DRILLING STOPPED AT TWO HUNDRED FEET. The pounding and shaking that had assaulted the black earth ceased, but the menacing echoes had already tunneled into the third strata of the solid granite. In a small pool of crumbling dirt, a nest of grubs cried out in agony, though no living thing save them could hear. A borer worm laughed, joy filling its soul, knowing that a greater power had come to do the work his form had once been assigned. The shale moved this way then that, green neon rock amassed, layered on top of gray stones that had been pulverized to the texture of sea salt. Then came an orange wedge, a shining shelf of ore that could buy houses for every family of a small town; should it ever be discovered. But the great gold ore was lost, lost to the underworld, hopefully, forever. And embezzled on the table not six feet from the green earth were the thighbones, waiting, the hollow earth never giving up the tune that needed to be played. The anticipation was felt by all things that still lived as nature intended, above and below blackness. Some feared the sound, many knew it for what it was: salvation. Five holes in a thighbone. Waiting for the hands of a blood woman, the wind from the Sky God. Hear it: We are the Atakapa. The Man-Eaters. Give over to us our land.
The lease on the five hundred acres had been negotiated over a year ago. Since then, Estelle Broussard had died of AIDS and Vernon Hulin was told that he had some kind of yellow disease from the Gulf War, so he went into hiding; Mouton Piteau was planning on becoming a millionaire twice over, and a lady professor of archeology from LSU had stopped the biggest land deal in Louisiana's last one hundred years. It's one goddamned shitty world, thought Michael Benton, as he spit out the pulp from a cane stalk.
"This is the sweetest, most sensuous stuff I've ever chewed," he said.
"Best there is around Houma, Mr. Benton," whispered Harlin. The heat had crawled up his legs, the sweat burning a hole in his tailbone. Bitching doctors, he thought, cut open for something called an abscess and now every time he went anywhere he felt an urge to scratch, pour cold water down his ass. How in hell did he get an infection in the crack of his ass?
"We need to drill on the northern acres before October. Harlin, you listening to me, Boy? You hearing me?" Michael Benton said, the tone of his voice not condescending, but downright holier-than-thou Virgin Mary on Christmas.
"Yes, sa, but what about the letter from Baton Rouge? They say you cain't drill no more."
"No damned archeologist or bureaucrat's gonna tell me what I can do with my land. I paid for it. More than it's worth."
"Done and paid a high price around here."
"What the hell do you mean by that?"
"Nothin'. Nothin' much. Jes so much hurt come out of it."
"Do your job. Feed your family. Buy yourself some more bourbon. Visit your favorite humping joint. But don't, I repeat, don't fucking tell me about my business."
"Sho. The northern part's gonna get drilled. I'll tell the crew." Harlin turned away from Benton, heading for his green pickup truck. The driver's door was smashed in, the windshield shattered. "Looks like a spider," he said out loud.
"What?" asked Benton.
"Nothin'," Harlin said. "Jes wondering how I'm gonna get my truck fixed before Annie sees it."
"You drink too damned much, buddy. You keep your fly open, what do you think's gonna happen. You're lucky you haven't died of some rotting disease."
"Ain't your business."
"Sure as hell is. You work for me. I can't have workers getting in trouble. It reflects on me."
Benton had walked up behind Harlin, grabbing his arm. Harlin pulled his arm away and headed for the truck. He yanked at the driver's door, the crunching sound echoed across the field.
"Wait!" yelled Benton. "You need money? I have an extra job for you."
"Legal?" asked Harlin.
"You know that woman come down from LSU last week?"
"The lady looking for bones?"
"What about her?"
"I just want you to scare the shit out of her. Make her get out. She's the one that's holding up the drilling. She's the cause of our problems. You want to lose this job, too?"
"How much?" Harlin asked. The itching in his tailbone was turning into a burning pain. He needed a drink. The clock on the dashboard was still working. He had twenty minutes to meet Mouton Piteau at Shank's Lookout.
"A thousand when her ass is out of the parish."
* * *
MARIE STUBIN HAD felt the familiar pain of Louisiana mornings for the past three weeks. There is nothing like it on this earth, she thought. Look at it. The slash of magenta across the horizon. Like someone had taken a knife to a young man's throat.
The black specters rose from the swaying cattails, ascended to heaven, forms spreading like angels, and then became white against the low alabaster sky. White on white. Life! A miracle. Even the sting of the mosquitoes on her neck made her feel alive. This feeling had vanished years ago. And for all her mining of the inner child, she could not fathom why. Poof. One day it had gone. No lost love, no lost job, no illness, no crisis that could try a soul. What is dead will come back. Marie knew that, and coming to the marsh had confirmed it. From the moment she had headed out from the canal, into the wide bayou, and sped out in the little outboard into the Vermillion Bay, she was certain of what she had to do more than anything else in her life. She was headed for the beginning and the end of it all. The white caps folded over and over as the boat headed into the sun. The clearest sky she had ever seen. The cleanest wind. When she had turned to look at the shoreline, the bracken, the swaying grasses, cattails knocking together then parting as though in a dance of ecstasy, she knew that this land held secrets equal to any archeological find in the past ten years. Why had no one come here to look before? The black soil, the smell of primeval earth. Billions of scurrying forms-beings separating, joining. She knew, beyond any doubt, that there existed an ancient world below these marshes. I will let no man walk here. I will kill first. That was two weeks ago.
Since then, she had covered more than two square miles, surveying inch by inch, overnighting a box of soil to LSU and then to a friend in the governor's office. But above all, it was the bone that sealed the deal. It was estimated at over a million years old and had come from an animal unknown to anyone that had looked at it. The governor handed down an executive order. No drilling on the marshlands headed by Boston Canal and Vermillion Bay. Right smack-dab in the middle were five hundred acres that had been sold to some guy from New York. Drilling had started. Now they had to stop. Marie was happy she had come out today. It was Sunday, and she saw no boats or cars or dune buggies. She knew the drilling was going on at night. She had heard it from her camp. Reporting it to the sheriff was useless.
The sun had moved over the bay, spreading a silver sheen. The world looked like ice, felt like hot hell, reminding Marie of her last trip to Alaska and the end of a love affair that had lasted a year too long. She had ended it with a great and liberating sigh. Enough of this . The mist had moved quickly into the Gulf, rolling, she imagined, southward then taking a sharp left through great straits and then into the Atlantic. She smiled at the sensation in her chest, sat on a fallen tree and unzipped her equipment bag. Compass, Gatorade, notepad, shovel, pick, brushes, Baby Ruth, oilcloth, alcohol wipes, expensive cognac. Marie opened the bottle, smelled the nutty aroma then lifted it to her lips. She held the liquid back with her tongue, taking a deep breath, then let the cognac fill her mouth.
* * *
AMY BROUSSARD COULD not stop grieving for her sister. Everything reminded her of the loss. The pink apron, the curling irons, the mirror with the gold leafing Estelle had bought at an auction the first time they had gone to New Orleans ten years ago. Amy smiled when she remembered Estelle's laughter, like dangling chimes, coming back after the months of empty rooms. When she opened the shop each morning now, she still wanted to call out "Estelle, Estelle honey, I'm here. Sorry I'm late again!" And then she would hear her lovely sister yell back "Mais, Ameee, if you come on time, ever, I'll pay for your two nights with Shug Matin down at Skunk's. You'll die before you win that bet, sha."
So, Amy had hired Sally Berg to help out. Although the kid had graduated from cosmetology school, she couldn't cut hair worth shit. Her regular customers complained until she told Sally to just do the curling. Amy shuddered to think what would happen if she let the kid color. She smiled at the thought: Mrs. DuBois with green hair, Lilly Fontenot with pink curls and, best of all, old lady Gatlin with no hair!
The tinkling of the bell woke her from these images. Amy looked toward the door expecting the three ladies from Benoit's Old Age Home. It was Harlin again. His hands on his skinny hips, that prized bear-image belt buckle, dirty blue shirt, his black, greasy hair falling into his eyes, red face, sweaty neck. Those damned black eyes, those eyes that had killed Estelle.
"Hi, Amy. How're you today?"
"Getting on. What do you want now?"
"Just stopping to see if you okay."
"Okay. Now leave me alone. I ain't sleeping with you."
Harlin turned, banging the door behind him. The bell clanged against the glass. I think I'll change the name of this shop, thought Amy. A&E's sounded like the television channel. Estelle had liked it: the name and the show. Made people remember the shop, she had said. Good marketing strategy. Amy had liked Over the Top.
* * *
SHANK'S LOOKOUT WAS home to about half the men in Vermillion Parish. The drinks were cheap, the food the best around, women accessible, if no longer easy, and it was one of the few places that served raw oysters straight from the bay. Mouton Piteau was sitting at the end of the bar on a high stool that had been covered with the hide of his favorite horse. Piteau had made Shank's his second home ever since he was fifteen and his Daddy disappeared in the Gulf and his Mama had remarried. Harlin could tell that he had already had a few shots. The jukebox was playing "Your Cheating Heart."
"Got your favorite song on again?" Harlin asked, as he sat next to Piteau. "That song fits jus' 'bout any damn 'cassion. Broke heart, broke date, broke dick, broke deal."
"You drinking early, podna. It's not ten yet."
"Cocks crow, we gotta go. Shit, man, I'm 'bout ta lose one of the biggest deals in south Louisiana. Ya bet I'm drinking." Piteau wiped his face with both of his hands, rubbed his neck, and yelled. "Hey, hoss, gem. . . gemme 'nother. And one for my friend heya."
They drank in silence, sipping. When Piteau finished, he threw the glass against the wall, laughing. " 'Kay, podna, here's the deal. Mike's in the back room. Listen. I'll pay ya, what, five thousand ya get rid of that bitch from Baton Rouge. I know guys, man, they can change the govena's mind."
"What ya want me to do?" asked Harlin. He couldn't believe it. One little woman making all this trouble and two big deal guys paying him to get rid of her.
Piteau reached out and pulled Harlin's head toward him until their noses touched.
"Kill her. Kill the bitch," he whispered. Harlin could smell whiskey and oysters. Then Piteau kissed him right on the lips. Just like in them Mafia movies. Piteau handed him folded bills. "One thousand now, the rest when it's over and the drilling commences. Hear that, commences. Got that word from that shit Benton."
* * *
IN LOUISIANA, WHEN the July afternoon rains come, they come rolling across the rice fields like God sending the Eleventh Commandment to Moses. First you smell it: it is the purest scent because there is no humanness to it. Then you feel it: it like a scalpel has entered your bones and scooped away every speck of marrow and cell. Then you hear it: it sounds like the beating wings of fallen angels trying desperately to scale the heavens. Then you taste it: it tastes like emptiness, like when you stick out your tongue to taste the world and there is nothing there, not cold or heat or wet or dry or sour or sweet. Then you see it: it rolls towards you like an earthly tidal wave. And then you say to yourself: Oh! How tormentingly lovely. This was Harlin's Louisiana.
Harlin climbed over the rusted barbed wire fence and headed straight toward the coming rain. He knew where Marie Stuben had camped, about a mile inland and along the edge of the canal. He estimated that he would get to her just as the night came in.
The rain would wash away his footprints. He would take her outboard, head into the point, get back to shore, let the boat wash out into the bay then cross the marsh onto the Boudreaux property. By morning, her body would be gone, out with the tide. No one would look for her until Tuesday, he was sure of that. I bet her mother had warned her about traveling alone. Poor Mama, laughed Harlin.
Marie could sense him coming at her. She smiled and unwrapped her second bone and laid it on the railing of the gallery. The rain had just passed, washing away the stench of rotting fish guts that she had left for the coons the night before. They did not come for their supper, and she was surprised. No matter. New stench coming.
The bone lay exposed to the sun, drying. Marie inspected it with her magnifying glass and smiled. How many people can you fool with a piece of bone? What land can you save with it? What vengeance can you finally say is yours?
This would go down in the annals of archeology, paleontology, anthropology and all other relevant ologies as a greater-than-the-Piltdown hoax. The only difference, she smiled, is that this bone is honest to goodness real. She had discovered it five years ago in the Sudan. She had been convinced that it had waited just for her. How clearly she now remembered using all of her body like a lever to push and pry away the fuchsia rock, then scraping and digging, ever so gently, until she saw the white point. Lovingly she brushed and blew away the sand, looking around, making sure no one else in the dig knew what she was doing, what she had found. Then at last she held them in her hand; not one, but two bones, from an animal, mammal she was sure. Then she had wrapped them in clear cellophane, then foil, then cloth and placed the gift into her knapsack, rose slowly, looked for Doctor Miner and yelled: "Nothing here."
This was five years ago.
The sun shimmered in the west, caressing the edge of the world. Marie asked herself: How long could this continue? Was the sun so fiery and hot before man touched the world as it is now? When did the ozone go and come back? When did the skies clear and darken again? What is one man's life against it all anyway? A shadow moved to her right and before she could get to her rifle. Marie felt herself pushed off of the gallery, her head hitting something, pain to her left hip and then a body holding her down. She should have felt him coming closer.
"Okay, okay, calm down. It's me, Harlin. " He laughed.
"Fuck you! Scare the shit out of me again and you're a dead man," screamed Marie.
"Sorry. I enjoy catching you off guard. Your instincts left ya? Having your period?"
"Shut up and just tell me what's going on."
"Can I get a drink or something? Man, I'm in pain." He turned and pulled the seat of his jeans so he could look at it. Dirt was stuck to it, a dark wet stain like an octopus. "This thing is killing me. Better I tried to help myself."
"What happened to you?" Marie asked. She walked over and pulled on his jeans, squinting, then leaning over to smell. "You have one hell of an infection here, my man. Smells like pus and blood."
"Rectal abscess. That's what the doctor said."
"Did they do a blood test?" Marie asked. She could feel the beating of her heart, a wave of fear, her eyes filling with tears. "Harlin. Oh, Harlin. Did you ever sleep with Estelle Broussard?"
"Why ya ask that?"
"Look, when I hired you to help me with this deal, I wanted it kept secret. My life and yours depend on it. We go way back. I heard what happened to Estelle. She died of AIDS. You were sweet on her in high school. I know you sleep with just about everybody. Did you, Harlin?"
He did not answer her, but walked up onto the gallery carrying the bottle of cognac. He stood looking toward the marsh then took two drinks from the bottle. Pouring some into his hand and wiping his face, "Yeah, 'bout two years ago. Fucking shit, I'm gonna die. What the hell is this, anyway?"
"Did the doctor do an AIDS test?"
"Hell, I don't know what they did. I was jes glad to get the big lump off my ass. Marie, God, help me."
"What in the name of Cain do you want me to do?" Marie hissed. "I'm not a doctor. Even if I were, I couldn't do anything. Besides. I'm just guessing." She smiled then walked through the door and into the cabin, leaving Harlin as he leaned over the gallery, puking into the brown water. Yellow strings of mucus moved up and down with the soft, tangled waves, bits of food clinging to the blackberry thorns that jutted from the worn crevices of the shoreline.
"Bitch," he whispered. "Playing wid me, scaring the living daylights outta me."
Marie came out and handed Harlin a glass of whiskey. "The good stuff. Jack D," she laughed. "So, tell me what you learned in town. About Piteau and the drilling."
"First, this guy Benton wants you out of the parish and back to LSU. Seems he could live with you outta Louisiana. Willing to pay me to scare you away. Now Piteau, mais 'lil darlin', he wants you dead as that armadillo floating in the bayou. He's paying, too." Harlin drank from the glass of whiskey, draining it, closing his eyes. Marie handed him the bottle and waited for her brother to take another drink. "Damn, it hurts."
"So, what you planning to do? Scare me or kill me?"
Harlin walked to the end of the gallery that faced the point leading to Vermillion Bay. The south wind had come in, bringing the strong, living aroma of fish. A great, groaning horn swelled in, rolling into the two of them as they turned towards the sound. The feel of the wooden railing reminded Harlin of his father and he suddenly saw the old shithead leaning over him after he had cut that big cypress. Harlin had helped him haul it to the edge of the bayou, joy filling his little heart, anticipating that he would at last create something that would bring a smile to his Daddy's face. Mama had made lemonade and fried the big red drum fish he had caught that morning during the family's enduring silence on the bay. His arms ached at the remembrance of that fish; it must have been two feet long, fat and meaty. Made no difference. Yes, he caught it just at the end of the first oilrig platform.
He felt a hand on his back, like the tentative hand of a new lover, searching, hoping.
"You thinking about Mom and Dad?" asked Marie.
"It's been so long, Sis. What happened to us? Where did it all go, the happiness?"
Marie took her hand away from her brother's back and slapped him across the back of his head. She screamed, a guttural sound, her teeth clenched. "Are you fucking crazy or something, " she finally said. "What happiness? Your life's a mess, I'm not even remembered around here, hiding out, pretending to be someone else. You could have at least had enough brains to get out of here with me when I asked you."
"Seems like you never left. What you doing here if you think you got out?"
"Dominae patre. Huh, Harlin. Patre, patre, patre."
"I'm not going to kill you. You're already dead. I'm not going to scare you, you've done that to yourself."
A sense of serenity passed over Harlin and Marie as they stood together on the gallery. A muskrat shuffled out of the cattails and slowly made its way to the water's edge. It stopped, as though it had lost some ancient instinct. The animal rocked back and forth, waiting, knowing that a call for help was useless. The muskrat was fat, bloated like a balloon, with a pink tail that twitched in desperation. The brown water rushed towards it, engulfed its reddened snout, then the muskrat fell over on its side.
"What you think killed this one?" asked Harlin. He reached for Marie's hand, squeezed it, and felt tears on his cheek. "I ain't cried seems like forever."
Marie pulled her hand away and laughed. "Thing that killed the muskrat is the same thing that kills everything else. You were born here, Harlin, you should be accustomed to death by now."
"I'm not going to kill you. Promise," he laughed. "I'm not doing what Benton told me, and sure not Piteau. So the drilling is stopped. What comes after from Baton Rouge, I cain't do nothin' about that."
"I've waited five years to get back here. Ever since it happened. Five years I've counted the minutes, days, months, until every thought is like a star bursting to extinction and then I had to begin life all over again. It's enough to make a person crazy."
"I'll get the shovels out of the back shed," said Harlin. "But I'm gonna dig slow. My ass hurts. You got any pain killers with ya?"
The summer sun moved to the middle of a clear sky, aiming its rays at the heads of the children as they worked. In five years time, the hackberry trees and bamboo had grown over thirty feet high around the gravesite. Brambles had engulfed the black dirt like a giant hand unwilling to let go of its charge. They dug and cut, hands bleeding, faces burnt, until they reached the wooden box that held the bones of their father. Every once and a while, they would stop to listen to motorboats on the bayou, holding their breath until the sounds moved away, either into the mouth of the bay or towards the canals leading to the edge of the docks. Harlin would stop and rest, looking toward the north, waiting, but Marie, intent, manic, continued without pause.
When the sun was nothing but a split in the earth and sky, Harlin's shovel hit a wooden board, the thump of the shovel on the coffin lid sent a shiver through him.
"Finally, damn him," shouted Marie, and jumped into the hole that took her in up to five feet. She jammed her shovel into the wood and pried open the cover.
A perfect skeleton, one that could grace the classroom of any medical school for years to come. Or maybe a fine archeological example of a man, species Homo sapien. The head was turned slightly to the left, the mouth opened so that the grim laughter that came out of it during life could still be heard. The ragged crack in the skull was decorated with green and yellow mold, refuse left by departing worms. The arms were folded over the chest, reposed and false. The hips gaped open, a nest of unformed pink and squirming baby bodies lay in the space. The thigh bones were white and shiny. A golden crack, no more than a thread, ran along the outer surface. The legs were intact.
"Well preserved, eh?" asked Marie. She had her left hand on the skeleton's left thigh bone. She bent over and sniffed, then ran her hand up and down the shaft. "Perfect for the flute, don't you think?"
"Marie, what are you planning ta do? We were supposed to dig him up and get him out to the bay and get rid of him. Please, what are you planning ta do?"
Marie climbed out of the grave. Her clothes were caked with mud, her black hair flying in the wind. Her face had flushed from the sun or digging. Her red mouth, her most distinctive feature, smiled, pulling her skin tight against her high cheekbones. "I'm going to perform a very ancient rite. I've studied it for years. We are descended from the Apataka people, Harlin. We're only part French."
"So what. And what ancient rite? What the hell."
"Our father has performed one great service to this land he so gratefully gave up to oil and money: He left his thighbones clean for me. I'm going to make a bone flute with five holes. One hole for each year I waited for this moment. He has two thighs. Want one?" Her laughter was loud and deep, strange, unforgiving, maddeningly sweet. The sound created an echo that lasted for only a moment.
"You're crazy. Who wants to carry that around? Besides, it's the evidence that can send us both to jail. Forever. We're supposed to get rid of the body and cover this hole. Marie. Come on."
"Go straight to hell, Harlin. This is my find, my land, my ritual." Her body was relaxed, fragile, and her brother could see exactly what she would look like when this was all over, when the weight of it fell, finally, on her shoulders. For one great, heaving moment, his mind flashed a picture of Marie dead, him standing over her. Harlin walked over to his father's twice-dug grave, leaned over, and spit into the nest of babies.
"I guess I love you more than anybody I ever knew, Marie, but this is too weird for even me. Do this thing by yourself. Then get rid of the rest of the bones. I don't want no flute with five holes or no holes. I pray to God people forgot about Daddy long time ago. I'm leaving before the loup-garou comes out. Moon's about to whirl in."
The dock was deserted when Harlin banked the outboard. He could smell shrimp and oily fumes from the boats and knew that the Batin brothers had a good catch. Piteau would get his fifty cut, so Shanks would be hopping tonight. He tied the outboard under the dock and checked the eastern horizon where he knew Marie was hard at work.
* * *
PITEAU WAS DRUNKER than Harlin had last seen him. He could hardly stand, and was supported by two young white girls no more than eighteen. One had hair so blond it was white. The other had red hair that looked dyed like an Easter egg. It was obvious they were already potted; they were laughing at everything. Harlin walked over and pulled Piteau by the belt, smiling at the redhead. "So girls, 'scuse us a minute." They let go of Piteau, relief warming their faces. They both danced away into another room, laughing.
"Hey, podna," slurred Piteau. "If it ain't my job, job man. Ya do it?"
"Gone, gone to meet her maker."
"Good. Want a drink?"
Harlin could taste the alcohol. He wanted one so bad. "Gimme a bottle and I'm outta here. Then gimme my money."
"Come by ta da bank Friday. I'll give it ta ya den. 'Kay."
He had a harder time finding Benton. By nine o'clock he had been to four jukes and found no trace of the guy. No one had seen him. He decided to try the Magnolia Inn, where only the rich and tourists go. He couldn't figure why he hadn't thought of that in the place first. John Marceau was parking a red Benz when Harlin arrived. He watched the old man run his hand along the back fender, then pound a fist into the trunk.
"Make a dent, they make ya pay," yelled Harlin.
"Ah, dey come out so full in their heads dey don' know what's happening," said Marceau as he walked toward Harlin. "What ya want here, boy?"
"Ya know that guy Benton bought the land out at the marsh? He been here?"
"He been here since 'bout seven. Wid a young lady younger den his daughter. His car's the white Jag over dere."
Harlin waited in the shadow of an oak tree, watching the full moon ascend over the roof of the valet carport, sipping from the bottle of Jim Beam. He never wore a watch, but he could tell that it was nearly midnight. Every time he heard a rustle, a chirp or slithering in the grass, his stomach clinched. He tried not to think of Marie or the reason they had come to this point in their lives. Memory is a dusty thing, he thought, giggling. When he closed his eyes, he saw what had happened, but it was not clear, not intense enough to come and then finally it would be gone from his head. Maybe if I could make myself see it clear, remember it for all the hate went into it, then I could make it go away.
He moved to his right hip, trying to avoid the throbbing that ran through his entire backside when the wound was touched. He thought of pouring some of the whiskey on his ass. At least it would be a good disinfectant. He had lost the bottle of pills they had given him at the hospital.
Benton and the girl were preceded by howling laughter, then silence, and then deep throaty admonitions from Benton. "Mon, shuga, les go to my place. Fo a little while. Mon, shuga," and "Non. I told you all night I wasn't gonna sleep with you. You're so drunk now you wouldn't even know what's happening."
Harlin stepped out of the shadow and called to Liz Martin. She turned and smiled. "Thank God. Harlin, get this guy to his car. I'm going home."
"Hope you had a nice dinner at least," said Harlin to Liz's back.
Benton was propped against the oak tree, snoring. Harlin got the keys to the Jag from Marceau, then pulled the car as close to the tree as possible and loaded Benton into the back seat. When he noticed that the gas tank was full, Harlin decided to drive around until Benton woke up. He could get coffee into the guy and let him know that he had done the job.
Harlin parked at the edge of Sycamore Point just as the sun came up. The morning sky was jaded by a fine green mist, the moss swung low like an old woman's breasts. The sullen heat had already come over the land, bringing the aroma of faded wisteria. "Marie, out there, Marie," whispered Harlin.
"Hey," groaned Benton from the back seat. "What's goin' on?"
"You were too drunk to drive. Rode around and here we are at Sycamore Point. Want some coffee?"
"Yeah. Thanks." Benton settled back as Harlin watched him from the rearview mirror. Benton slurped the coffee. Harlin watched a nutria glide across the canal.
"You do the job?"
"Yeah, she'll be gone 'fore noon. Scared about snakes, the loup-garou; the werewolf lives out there in the swamp in case you didn't know. Then I tol' her about two big hit men on permanent payroll with Piteau. Blamed it all on him. Tol' her about how those two men cut up a lady down in Hendersonville. Wouldn't let her land go after the husband passed. She knows she cain't do nothin' about stopping the drilling if she's dead. So, she's off, I guarantee it. So, can I have my money now?"
Benton snorted. Harlin could see him smiling, looking out of the back window.
"Sure, bring me back to the hotel then come to the bank Friday morning."
The A&E Beauty Shop was full. The drying machines were on, hot air and noise blasting into the heads of the women sitting and reading magazines. The place smelled like sulfur mixed with chlorine. Hot, stuffy air inflated the room, even though the air conditioner was on. Amy was cutting white hair; Harlin could see her fingers clasping gangly sprigs then chopping it. He watched her move from right to left, sprig, clasp, cut until she stopped, smiled and ushered the old lady to where her daughter waited with a wheel chair ready.
"Amy, can we talk? Just a minute. Please," asked Harlin.
Amy nodded and walked toward the back of the shop.
"What?" she said, anger in her eyes, on her lips.
"I didn't give Estelle AIDS. I didn't have it when I slept with her. I know that. I had a test two weeks before, when I gave blood at the Red Cross truck. So, well, maybe now I have it from her. God, Amy. Oh, God."
Amy turned away and lit a cigarette. Harlin watched the smoke rise. It looked like her head was on fire.
"I'm sorry," said Amy. "Real sorry. Get a test and never come back in my shop."
* * *
HARLIN FINISHED THE letter by noon. He addressed it to the state police, the Attorney General of Louisiana, the president of the oil company that Benton worked for, all of Piteau's six children, and every major newspaper in south Louisiana. In it he described the deal Benton and Piteau had offered him, (which I had no intention of carrying out!), and about the land that Piteau had bought from Harlin's mother, Adele Arceneaux, the year after her husband had died. The land that was now to be made the property of the state, for it was declared a sacred burial ground of the Apataka Indians. He included copies of a letter written by his mother telling him that Piteau had threatened her life and the life of her children if she did not sell. Piteau's son was also the Attorney General. Then Harlin went back to the hospital to get another AIDS test.
* * *
MARIE STUBIN, NÉE Marie Therese Arceneaux, held up the long thighbone to the glaring sun. She squinted and looked through each of the tiny filigreed holes. The wind refused to cooperate with her experiment, though she turned in circles, stopping, holding the bone flute to the wind. No properly made bone flute would work unless the wind flowed through the holes just at the right second, at the right speed. She was patient in her endeavor. A sense of extreme calmness had overtaken her the moment she held the bone between her thumb and forefinger, blue-sky light flashing through the holes. Again, she moved her body in a circle, arms beckoning until they ached. She rested, then held the bone up again, this time supplicating. The sound was pristine and clear, like the breath of a god giving the first spark to dead matter.
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