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eBook by George Alec Effinger
eBook Category: Suspense/Thriller
eBook Description: Someone's about to rip off a sleepy little Louisiana town! Chuck's gang of truckers are geared for looting. When Tom masterminds a false hurricane alert?When sheriff Boshardt orders an evacuation of the town?When Chuck moves in to strip the town clean?Their cool caper escalates into a devastating triple-cross that rips the rooftops off everything from Miami to New Orleans--and nothing--no one will ever be the same!
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, Published: 1976
Fictionwise Release Date: February 2011
* * * *
The Louisiana Town was named Arbier, after a French priest who had ministered to the spiritual needs of the area's Indian population, back when the area's population had been only Indian. The present inhabitants of Arbier were proud of their heritage; only a very few of them could claim Indian blood, but that did not stop others from trying.
These local people pronounced the name of their town Arber. Outsiders always tried to pronounce it as Ar-byay'. The foreigners, as the locals thought of all outsiders, could be picked out easily. There were no tourists, only foreigners. Even other Louisianans were foreigners, from up north in New Orleans or Baton Rouge. Shreveport was practically Yankee country. The pride and clannishness of the townsfolk was such that when a visitor made the pronunciation error, no one would correct him. He would go on making the same mistake until he left the town, and the residents of Arbier would smile in a way that no foreigner could understand.
In the late 1950's, the town in St. Didier Parish had numbered only twenty-five hundred people. Now, some two decades later, the population of Arbier was hovering around three thousand. Nothing changed in the town except the names of some of those people, and the seasonal price of shrimp.
Outside Paul Pierson's apartment there were two small balconies. They were shaded by the roof of the neighboring house in the morning, but as noon approached more of the black iron railings and bases absorbed the August heat. It was past eleven o'clock in the morning, and the topmost railings were already beginning to broil in the nearly direct rays of the summer sun. A mockingbird flew from the crepe myrtle tree in the backyard and landed on the railing outside Pierson's living room. The bird hopped sideways uncomfortably until it sat on the shaded part of the iron bar. Once it had settled down, the mockingbird began to run through its extensive catalogue of songs.
Pierson had sliding glass doors leading from his bedroom and living room onto his two balconies. The doors were open for ventilation, and the mockingbird's loud singing pierced the stillness of the apartment. Pierson was asleep, but his large gray Persian cat was not. The cat watched the bird intently from across the living room; almost every morning the bird sat on the balcony and taunted the cat. Almost every morning the Persian ran full speed across the living room carpet and jumped at the bird, hitting the sliding screen door. The mockingbird didn't fly away in fear; it did what its name suggested, it mocked. It sat on the iron railing and twittered at the furious cat.
The Persian may have failed to catch the mockingbird, but the noise succeeded in waking Pierson up. He rubbed a hand through his hair and stared blearily at the wall opposite him. Then he walked into the living room. "Knock it off, Cy," he muttered. He picked up the cat and tossed him halfway across the floor. Then Pierson slid the glass door shut so the bird's singing wouldn't bother the cat any longer. Pierson closed the drapes in front of the door. Then he went back into the bedroom and lay down. After ten minutes he realized that he wouldn't be able to fall asleep again. He shrugged. It was going on noon, and he decided that he might as well get up. Still, though, it was a Saturday morning and he wasn't in any hurry. He pictured to himself his first few movements of the day: get up, pick his clothes up off the floor, go into the bathroom, wash up, get dressed. Maybe eat. Then the rest of the day was his. He thought about these moves from beneath the sheet that covered him. He made no motion to get up yet.
Instead, Pierson rolled over and faced the young woman who was still asleep beside him. Her name was Maddie Gargotier, and Pierson thought that she was a little bit strange. It seemed to him that every few days she would make a crazy decision concerning her future or their life together. He was always amazed to learn how she arrived at these decisions. He guessed that her thought processes rarely had anything to do with real life. Her plans always seemed to her to be carefully made and irrevocable; fortunately, Pierson thought, she forgot them in a matter of hours.
Maddie was a pretty young woman, twenty-two years old, with long dark hair that set off her pale, delicate face. She had high cheekbones, a small, freckled nose, and greenish eyes that changed color depending on the clothing she wore. Now, as she opened them, while she wore nothing, they were just greenish.
Pierson reached out fondly to touch her sleepy face.
"I have something to tell you," she said.
Pierson pulled his hand back, his gesture incomplete. This morning her words hit him very hard. They were precisely the same words his ex-wife had used on the day she had left him. Coming from Maddie, they were an unpleasant reminder. Here we go, thought Pierson. Either she's leaving me too, or she's pregnant.
He said nothing. He stared at her, blinking, waiting for her to say what she had to say.
"I'm joining the Navy," she said.
There wasn't anything for Pierson to do. He was relieved, in a way. It was another of Maddie's quirky inspirations. But he had learned from experience that at the moment she was determined to do what she said. Pierson lay in bed, waiting quietly, like someone who was sitting through a dull joke in the wan hope of a killer punch line. Anything Pierson could have said would have sounded mean and self-serving.
There was a long, uncomfortable pause.
"Well?" asked Maddie.
"Well what?" said Pierson, knowing precisely what she was waiting for.
"What do you think?"
"Maddie," he said, "I think that you'll see a lot of the world, get to wear fashionable uniforms, and mostly not have to make many decisions for a few years."
"Oh, Paul," said Maddie with a disgusted expression. "I knew you'd say that."
Pierson stared up at the ceiling. "How did you know what I'd say? And what did I say?"
"Selfish," said Maddie. Pierson did not reply. "I shouldn't even have asked you," she said. "Me and Shelley and Betsy decided we'd do it together. We're all going down to take the tests the day after tomorrow. I want to see if I can get into the submarine service."
"I don't think they'll put you on one," said Pierson. He rubbed his eyes, which were itching and burning. He hadn't tried to touch Maddie since his first attempt. Now he didn't feel much like trying. He'd feel strange; in a way, she had become naval personnel, almost.
"I don't actually expect to be put on a submarine," said Maddie, "but there's still lots that I can do."
Pierson had an answer to that, and he knew that he shouldn't give it to her. He did anyway. "You don't like your job with Krieger-LaChapiet, right? And so you'll join the Navy. I give you five-to-two odds that you'll get the same job, except then you won't be able to quit."
"You're selfish, you're just plain selfish," said Maddie, rolling even farther away from him. "You don't want me to try anything. You don't want me to make something out of my life." Pierson's previous reply had been just what he had thought it would be. A mistake.
"Sure," he said, "I want you to make something out of your life." He sighed. Maddie Gargotier had little enough to work with. Her father owned a popular bar in Arbier, and Maddie had practically grown up in it. The St. Didier Parish School Board didn't expend itself very hard making certain that the children of the electorate attended classes. Maddie's education had been intermittent at best. When she did go to the regional high school, she took mostly typing and secretarial courses. Her guidance counselor advised Maddie that these courses were the most practical; in Arbier they were certainly better than a life of crime, but little more. Most of the employees in the town and the surrounding areas needed farmhands or crewmen for fishing boats. There wasn't much demand for clerks or typists. Maddie had vague plans of going to New Orleans or Lake Charles or Lafayette to look for a job. Pierson couldn't understand how those hypothetical jobs might be better than her present position, in which she was virtually the entire main office of a small fishing supply house.
Pierson sat up and tried to untangle the sheet on his side of the bed. "I don't want you to make a mess of your life, is all," he said.
"You let me worry about that, Paul," she said.
"You go to hell, Pierson," she cried. "You come down here from Ohio all full of superiority. You think you can run anybody's life."
"I came down here to stay. I'm almost as southern as you are."
"You are not," said Maddie, still angry. "You got to be born to it. You can't even remember if you say 'crick' or 'creek.' You can't remember for here, or for Ohio neither." That was true.
"I'm lost without you, Maddie," said Pierson. He smiled.
"I'll tell you what," she said. "Forget about what I said.
Come on back, and go to hell again." She started sorting through the pile of clothing on the floor. "I want the bathroom first," she said.
"You got it," said Pierson. "And tonight, Navy person, you sleep in a hammock. See how you like it."
"Yeah," said Maddie, turning around and facing Pierson belligerently, "who says I'll even come back here tonight?"
"I didn't think you would," he said. "If you really want to sleep in a hammock, you'll have to go somewhere else."
Maddie didn't know how to interpret his remark. This was natural, because Pierson didn't know, either. He wasn't sure if he was playing or genuinely angry. Maddie just stared. Pierson stared back, and after a few seconds Maddie turned and went into the bathroom. Pierson decided to go into the living room and wait; by the time she was finished in the bathroom he would know what he was feeling. He got dressed and brushed his hair. Then he went into the kitchen and took a bottle of Dr. Pepper from the refrigerator for breakfast. He opened it and went into the living room, where he put on the television.
The Channel Five weatherman was giving his noon report. "There's good news and bad news in the weather today," he said. "You can see all of it in this morning's satellite photograph from the New Orleans Weather Service. This white mass here is Hurricane Dinah. She's the good news. This high-pressure ridge extends down through Florida and out over the ocean. Dinah spun into it late last night, and it looks like she's rebounding to the north-northeast, away from the Florida coast and definitely no threat to the Gulf region. The latest predictions are that Dinah will rain herself out over the Atlantic, gradually filling in, presenting no threat to any populated areas. But we all know what hurricanes like to do. They like to make fools of weathermen. So we'll still keep an eye on Dinah until she's officially downgraded off the map.
"That's the good news. The bad news is this tight spiral of clouds over the Virgin Islands. Yesterday that was Tropical Storm Elsie. Today she's Hurricane Elsie. You can see on the satellite loop the definite cyclonic rotation. Her winds are clocked at eighty-five miles per hour, with some winds up to a hundred and twenty miles per hour. Her course has been generally to the west, but we're hoping that the same high-pressure system that diverted Dinah will push Elsie aside. We'll have a better idea of what's going on with Elsie on the Six O'clock Report tonight."
* * * *
The weatherman's words were listened to in silence all over Arbier; the people in the town knew what a passing run from a hurricane meant. They had lived through them before. They had no desire at all to do it again. But every year, from about the first of June through October, the Hurricane "season," the residents of Arbier watched the weather reports closely. They needed every hour of warning, in case a hurricane turned toward the Gulf coast. Arbier was hit early in such a case; after the small town was mauled the hurricane moved inland, losing some of its force and terror. But Arbier always took the full strength of the storm's power.
Walter Boshardt, the sheriff of St. Didier Parish, watched the Channel Five news program from his usual lunchtime booth in Mrs. Perkins' diner, the Crisis Cafe, on Ridge Street. He shook his head when he heard what Strahan the meteorologist had to report. As the weatherman said, it was good news and bad news. But to Boshardt's mind, the good news hardly made up for the bad. It meant that the sheriff had to live with an imaginary killer named Elsie for a few days. Elsie, the personality engendered by the Weather Service, was imaginary; Elsie the murderous storm was very real, already taking lives and destroying property in the Caribbean.
Sheriff Boshardt had been elected to his office four times in sixteen years. The reason was simply that the people of St. Didier Parish liked him. He was a tall, trim man, darkly tanned by the Gulf coast sun, with deep-set, intelligent eyes and short blond hair which he described as "rapidly failing." He liked to sit in the diner and laugh with his friends, he liked to sit in Mike's and drink a couple of beers and watch football or basketball on the color television, and he liked his job. Maybe that was the reason his constituents were so pleased with him.
Boshardt divided his duties into two categories. First, he enforced the laws of the parish and the state. This part of his job was necessary, even vital, but Boshardt didn't care for it very much. He was sometimes embarrassed to arrest someone for a misdemeanor, particularly a person whom Boshardt knew well. He never let that interfere with his work, though; he felt uncomfortable, but he did it.
The second category of duties was more in the line of public service. He enjoyed this a great deal more. He spoke to children in the schools about safety and avoiding accidents. He delivered talks to groups of parents on what to do when their children ignored the safety speeches. He presented information on teenage drinking and drug use. He gave short courses in disaster relief. He was aided in these duties by several deputies, but he performed most of his tasks himself. He hated to delegate jobs; he wanted to be certain that things would be done right, and the best way to do that was to do the work himself.
He was eating a plate of red beans and rice and washing it down with a glass of cold beer. He mopped up the gravy with chunks of French bread, almost obsessively, every three forkfuls. While he ate, he stared at the television screen.
Skip Strahan, the Channel Five weatherman, was finishing his segment of the noon news. "Present temperature on the square in downtown Linhart is eighty-nine degrees. Humidity at sixty-seven percent. Winds from the south-southeast at eight miles per hour. Outlook for the Linhart viewing area: clear today and tonight, high in the low nineties, low tonight in the upper seventies. Partly cloudy tomorrow afternoon, with a fifty percent chance of rain late in the day. High tomorrow in the low nineties. That's all for now. Sheila Downing will be back at six o'clock with the weather update." The image of Strahan's young face was replaced by a bank commercial. Sheriff Boshardt turned his attention back to his lunch.
"Glad that storm moved north instead of heading on into the Gulf," said the waitress, a seventeen-year-old girl named Lauren.
"Yeah," said Boshardt.
"I don't know," said Lauren. "Seems this is the time of year for hurricanes to make a run for us."
"Yeah," said Boshardt, mopping up the gravy on a piece of bread.
"And I don't know why they have to name hurricanes after women."
"Neither do I, honey," said the sheriff. He looked at her thoughtfully.
"So Dinah's gone," said the waitress. "It's sad, sort of. If we were going to have a hurricane, I like the name Dinah better than--what is it? Elsie?"
"I had a grandmother name of Elsie," said Boshardt quietly. That wasn't true; he hadn't, really. He just wanted to take a quiet shot at the girl. He swallowed a long mouthful of beer, staring at the wall beyond the row of booths.
"Oh, I'm sorry," said Lauren, flustered. "I didn't mean anything by it."
No, you didn't, thought Boshardt. And neither did I. He laughed softly. So we're all even, and that's the way I like it to be.
He smiled at the waitress, and she started to say something, but didn't. She turned and went into the kitchen. Boshardt shook his head sadly. At the time, he didn't know why.
It was almost twelve-thirty. The sheriff stood up and ran a hand through his hair. He yawned.
"Had enough?" called Mrs. Perkins from the kitchen.
"Yeah, Ma," said Boshardt. "Real good today. I'll leave you a couple of bucks on the counter."
"You don't have to, Sheriff," said the old woman.
"I know," said Boshardt. "If I had to, I'd eat somewheres else." It was about the same thing she said to him every day, and the same thing he said to her. He left two dollars beside the cash register, then walked back out into the hot air that covered Ridge Street like clear fire.
The patrol car was parked about forty yards from the Crisis Cafe. Boshardt hoped that he wouldn't meet anyone he knew on the way to the car; he was a very friendly person, and he valued his close relationship with the people of Arbier, but after a heavy meal on a hot day he didn't want to have to smile and make idle conversation. He wanted to get in the car and drive for about fifteen miles and let the garlic and hot sausage fade away into his tissues. He decided to drive up to Linhart and check on the office.
Ridge Street, one of Arbier's four main streets, ran straight from the northern corporation limit south to the Gulf of Mexico. The street ended with a driveway paved poorly with asphalt and covered with small white shells; the drive narrowed into a rutted dirt track, which led directly to a very old wooden pier that visibly swayed with the slapping of the waves. Beside the pier on the narrow beach was a bait shop, long since closed down and abandoned. Sheriff Boshardt had to go down to that old shack about two or three times a year, to chase away high school kids or drunks or noisy couples; these people could easily find other places to have their disorderly times, and Boshardt encouraged them to do just that.
He thought about that bait shop as he passed by the Sea-Ray Motel, which was usually the second stop for the unmarried couples, some of the high school kids, and a surprising number of the drunks, not all of whom were unemployed vagrants. The shack made a southern border for Arbier, a kind of outpost. The Sea-Ray Motel guarded Arbier's northern frontier. Beyond the Sea-Ray, Ridge Street became a parish road, as bad as the asphalt and shell driveway. The noise grew irritating as Boshardt drove along; the car bumped and swayed from one deep chuckhole to another. The shells popped and cracked beneath the tires. A thick cloud of dust and dirt fanned up around the car. Boshardt rolled up the windows as the fine dirt sifted in on him.
The parish of St. Didier had three main population centers. They were Arbier; Linhart, the parish seat, with about six thousand people; and, northwest of Linhart, the town of Delochitaches, which the people there pronounced De-lock'-i-tus. Boshardt thought that it was just plain unfriendly for a town of eighteen hundred to have a name like that. He had to be careful to give Delochitaches as much attention as he gave Arbier and the rest of the parish; he really didn't like that community.
Arbier, where Boshardt had been born and where he grew up, received the greatest share of his time. Many of the people in the parish believed that he should live in Linhart; but in the first place, Boshardt didn't want to leave the house he had lived in all of his life, the same house his parents had moved into after their wedding; in the second place, Boshardt could cite statistics to prove that the crime rate in St. Didier Parish did not justify his moving. It really didn't make any difference where he lived. He could do almost as good a job from Seattle, Washington.
Most of the people of Arbier earned their livings either on the sea or in the fields. On the sea were shrimp boats and fishing trawlers; there were also off-shore oil rigs. In the fields to the north and west of the town was sugar cane. Boshardt looked at the fields of green, waist-high cane as he drove by. Boshardt thought that St. Didier Parish was one of the most beautiful in the state, although by national standards the parish was impoverished.
Arbier's residents had a characteristic shrug that they presented to inquisitive foreigners. Like the unwillingness to correct a visitor's pronunciation, reserving that for local folk, the shrug was meaningful to the people of Arbier. Tourists and reporters interpreted the shrug as part of the Cajun spirit; only another native would have understood just how hostile the gesture was.
The sheriff left Arbier behind, and the cane fields. Soon the farming communities began to flash by on the sides of the road. They were each nothing more than a couple dozen pine board shacks, roofed with tarpaper or sheets of galvanized metal. There was always a gas station, a grocery store that might also contain a post office, and three or four lounges. That's what they called themselves. He just wished that they wouldn't call him. Sometimes there was trouble, and sometimes he had to go tend to it. Out here, in tiny villages of one or two hundred people, there was very little concern or respect for the law. People didn't feel part of the parish or the state; they felt separate and virtually exempt from the rules of distant lawmakers. Store owners and lounge operators often had reason to disagree.
Lounges. Hell. Boshardt took a quick glance into the open door of Marie & Pal's Lounge, in Capita, Louisiana, as he drove by at thirty-five miles per hour. The inside of the bar seemed as black as death, with only a fuzzy red rectangle glowing faintly in the back. That was all Boshardt could see. No people, no life. Blackness. He drove on.