Mid-morning, six days after the disappearance of seventeen-year-old Ginny Robichaux, two men in a long camo-painted pirogue cruise up the still waters of Bayou Belle Terre. In the distance, high above Paradise Island, turkey buzzards circle. The white-clouded sky is pocked black with dozens of hungry carrion hunters, their v-shaped wings surfing the hot thermals, dipping one way and then the next, their oversized olfactories homing in on a scent, an invitation—they smell death. Red algae coats the surface of the listless waterway. Green lily pads gone brown along the edges float atop the bones of once-living organisms, beings that not long ago swam, flew, crawled or even walked the earth.
Claude Babin swings the handle of his Honda Go-Devil outboard motor toward him. The over-wide flat-bottomed pirogue drifts right. Terrebonne Parish Sheriff Elton Breaux shifts his weight to the side to compensate for Claude’s broad turn. The two men cruise in closer to the muddy shore of what few would see as anything more than an infinite expanse of wetlands. Neither rocks, nor sand nor even dry land form a boundary between the swamp and Paradise Island. It’s all thick reeds, mossy trees and stagnant water, a wasteland into which only a handful of people know their way.
The sun is brutal this morning, and the air reeks of decaying vegetation. Claude lifts off his New Orleans Saints baseball cap, and with his forearm mops the sweat from his brow. Wisps of his thinning brown hair stick to his temples. His Budweiser logo t-shirt is growing damp at the underarms. Ten in the morning and it’s already in the mid-eighties. Claude laughs and shakes his head side to side.
“You really think you gonna find that Robichaux girl all the way up in here?” Claude asks.
“I don’t know what I think,” says Sheriff Breaux, smoothing down his thick black hair, tucking it up under his navy blue Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s Department cap. “What do you think?”
“I think that girl done run off. Pretty as she was, she probably met her some oilrig monkey with fistfuls of that roustabout money and they done run off outta this place. That’s what I think.” Claude chuckles and wipes at the back of his neck with his bandana. “You chasin’ after a goddamned ghost, for sure.”
“Maybe,” Sheriff Breaux says. He scans the reeds along the shoreline as the pirogue slips down the bayou, the sound of the Go-Devil motor humming out their presence. “Maybe.”
You better watch this all don’t come unglued. You be real careful. You don’t know what ‘ol Elton Breaux knows, not yet, him actin’ like he’s your best damn friend. He ain’t been this chummy since before Daddy passed. Now he got to come into Teddy’s General Store lookin’ for someone with a pirogue to take him down to Paradise Inlet, and he just happens to choose you, butterin’ you up like you the only one knows the way.
Even if that sheriff got a nose on him like a bloodhound he don’t know nothin’, not a clue. You just hang tight, hang tight like an ‘ol gator. Keep them eyes glidin’ along on top the waterline, like an ‘ol driftwood log, hollow and floatin’ mindless, wanderin’. That’s all. But eyes open—there’s eyes on top that old log. Got to keep sharp, every minute, got to keep poundin’, swim up against the water, your heart beatin’ out cold blood. You just hang tight, keep that thirty-ought six where you can get at it. ‘Ol Elton, he ain’t half as smart as he thinks he is.
The tops of cypress trees peak up from the swampland a few hundred yards ahead of them. The central channel of Bayou Belle Terre, once a wide and deep artery, narrows as Claude hugs in closer and closer to the Island’s nondescript shoreline. The water’s not even waist deep here, but that’s impossible to fathom given its lack of clarity, the muddy tinge of it roiling cloudy as the pirogue stirs along.
“Inlet’s right on past this bend,” says Sheriff Breaux.
“Hell, I know where I’m goin’. Don’t got to tell me.” The pirogue glides slow and steady as the men inch toward the narrow inlet: a byway, little more than a swampy cul-de-sac meandering a hundred yards south into a wide lagoon at the boggy heart of Paradise Island. White herons dip their sharp beaks into the shallows along the banks, lifting and then re-planting their long stick feet on the murky swamp bed, stirring up the insects and the little bottom feeders, forcing them from their hiding places. Two alligators flop down from a thicket of soggy land and into the water, sifting down beneath the surface with a grace that belies their strength, the beasts’ powerful tails waving side to side in the sweeping S-shapes characteristic of sidewinder snakes. The gators pay no mind to the water birds. They know it’s useless to go after herons.
“What’s got you thinkin’ she’s up in here?” asks Claude, sweat streaming down into his thick eyebrows.
“It’s remote. Only a few people know how to navigate these waters. I got to thinkin’, if I wanted to hide a body where could I hide it? Maybe somewhere the gators would get after it, leave no evidence.”
“You think ol’ Billy Robichaux would up and murder his own daughter?”
Sheriff Breaux turns and eyes Claude, the outboard motor thrumming smooth, cutting through the shallow swamp water, trailing a mere hint of a wake behind them. “It’s possible, I guess. He knows his way up in here.” Claude’s got his right hand tight on the steering handle, so tight his knuckles have gone white. His left hand drifts from the edge of the boat, down to his hunting rifle and then back up again. He’s done this more than a few times now, does it every time he asks Sheriff Breaux a question.
“You know, Claude, there’s almost no such thing as random violence.”
“Random violence. It doesn’t hardly exist. I mean, there’s always exceptions, like that lunatic shot up that movie theatre in Lafayette a few months back, but if a person’s gonna commit a violent act, especially murder, that’s almost always on someone close. Most times a murderer knows the victim. A violent act like that’s not some random thing. There’s a reason.”
“Is that right.”
“Someone got the balls to carry through on a murder, it’s always someone the victim knows.”
“So, you think her father might ‘a done it?”
“Like I said, I don’t know what I think.”
See that? He’s just fishin’, don’t know a goddamned thing. He don’t know what you been through, what she drove you to do. Fuckin’ bitch of a wife. She practically dared you to find someone else. Day in, day out, you got to keep on kissin’ her ass like she can do no wrong. Should ‘a took an axe to her years ago. But that ain’t smart. Screw up your meal ticket. Naw, her old man’ll kick off soon enough. You just keep it together; take this law man back up in there. It won’t matter none. Gators are long since finished with little Ginny. God damn, but she was some heartbreaker with that fine ass, skin soft and smooth like honey. Body like that’s made for one thing, and one thing only. He don’t see that. You keep his eyes lookin’ somewheres else, keep ‘ol Elton circlin’ back around towards her daddy.
The Sheriff shifts his thick belt buckle over so that it’s not cutting so tight into his gut. The grip of his M9A1 Beretta slaps hard up against the side of the pirogue. Sheriff Breaux adjusts it down out of his way and stares at the narrow channel of Bayou Belle Terre, stares out into the expanse of still black water in front of them. “You find a job yet, Claude?”
“I stopped lookin’. Ain’t got to work if I don’t want to.”
“Don’t know if I could stand my wife’s parents supporting me. That’d play tricks on my ego after a while.”
“Shit. They can afford it, all that damn natural gas money.”
“Yeah, that’d eat away at me though, my wife havin’ to support me. I gotta be makin’ my own money, else I feel like less of a man. But that’s just me.” Sheriff Breaux turns back and stares into Claude’s eyes. “Man’s got to have work, you know?”
“I’d rather have my freedom, answer to no one.”
“Hell, we all got to answer to someone, no matter where our next dollar comes from.”
Claude stares off right, angles the boat so that it skirts the thick white reeds that jut from the shores of what looks like dry land. Paradise Island isn’t so much an island as a gradual rise in the swamp bottom, just enough land peeking out from the water to support thick growths of ancient cypress trees, sleeping giants covered in leathery vines that choke around their trunks like boa constrictors. Spanish moss drips thick off the drooping branches in waterfalls of gray, the lowest tendrils touching down upon the loamy surface of the swamp, strands of delicate fingers testing the temperature of the stagnant water.
“I could put in a good word for you down at the salvage yard,” says Sheriff Breaux. “Cecil’s been looking for a man to run the tow truck.”
“I done tol’ you, I ain’t lookin’ for no job.”
“All right, all right. I’m just sayin’, that kind of idle time would get to me after a while.”
“I ain’t idle.”
“What you been up to?”
Claude stares out in front of Sheriff Breaux, pulls on the till and guides the boat around a huge piece of driftwood, one of its branches jutting up from the water like a desperate arm. “I been busy.”
“Me and Jimmy Paul got a license to take a few gators this summer. Done sold half a dozen already, up in Houma.”
“So, you been drivin’ up into Houma regular?”
“Every now and again.”
Sheriff Breaux laughs, a loud burst of laughter the swamp and the trees dampen into a dead silence. “That’s funny. I got some new information yesterday. Ain’t no one knows yet. Found out the girl has a boyfriend, up the highway in Houma.”
“That’s right. Billy told me she’s been sneakin’ out on Fridays, and sometimes on Saturday, hitchin’ a ride up to see him. Of course, I had to go up and find that boy, see what he had to say. Finally cornered him last night. You know what he told me?”
“What?” Claude’s hand slides off the side of his pirogue again, down to his rifle.
“Not a Goddamned thing.” Sheriff Breaux laughs hard.
The cypress trees eat the sound. Claude begins laughing along with the Sheriff, adjusts the bill of his cap down closer to his eyes. He’s scanning around for the neck that leads into Paradise Inlet.
“Naw,” says Sheriff Breaux, quieting down. “That ain’t true. I did find out one thing. That boy said he saw her get out of a black Ford F-150 pickup truck last time she caught a ride up to see him. Ain’t that what you drive?”
Claude stops smiling, stares a straight line right through Sheriff Breaux’s head. Claude’s eyes are two black beads. “Me and about a million other guys. What’s your point?”
“You didn’t give that Ginny Robichaux a ride up into Houma last Saturday night, did you Claude?”
Here it comes now. You just watch what you say. No matter who he done talked to, ain’t no one gonna find that girl.
She was smart, that Ginny Robichaux. Always asking what you was thinkin’, like she wanted to hear your troubles. Wonder what she’s thinkin’ about now? Wonder what she knows? The hereafter must be strange, full of old ghosts. Wonder if she seen Daddy prowlin’ around. That man’s cold hands been too many times on your shoulders. You can try, but it’s hard not to hear him, hissin’ the way he always done, drivin’ everyone ‘round him crazy. “You done fucked up now, son, big time. You just watch what I tol’ you. That ol’ Elton’s nobody’s fool. He been to college at Tulane, come back with all kind ‘a smarts you ain’t never gonna know about.” Yeah, Daddy. Go ’head on. Smarts ain’t just about college and books. See if he’s smarter than a bullet to his head.
“Huh? What’s that?”
“I said, did you pick up that Ginny Robichaux? Ride her into Houma on Saturday night?”
“No way. I’d a tol’ you something like that. What you tryin’ to say, Elton?”
Claude’s left hand hasn’t strayed from his rifle.
“Just tryin’ to find out what happened. Thought it might’ve been you that boy seen drivin’ Ginny into town. Say, where were you on Saturday night anyway? Teddy down at the General Store said he ain’t seen you since last week. Not till this morning anyway.”
“I was off fishin’.”
“Is there some kind of law against fishin’ alone?”
Sheriff Breaux laughs again, his belly straining against his beltline. He reaches down and shifts his gun belt around again, unclips the strap on his Beretta so Claude sees it’s not locked down into its holster. He turns and stares up the bayou, fixes his eyes on the small waterway they’re approaching.
“There’s the neck of the inlet.”
Claude cuts the outboard motor, turns the till so that the boat drifts into a slow right turn. He reaches down for the long oar he keeps stowed at the side of the boat bottom. Claude stands, and with the oar he guides the pirogue down the narrow passage into Paradise Inlet.
The air here is silent and still. Gators scatter as the pirogue floats by, its bow cutting through the sun-speckled waters of a broad lagoon opening out before them. Claude paddles them down into the center of the lagoon, and then half-pushes, half-rows out toward the far shoreline. Sheriff Breaux sings out, pointing way up ahead toward the reeds at the lagoon’s southern end. “See there? What the hell is that stickin’ up?”
Claude doesn’t say a word as he paddles in closer.
“Those two white protrusions. They don’t look nothin’ like reeds. See the rounded edge on that first one, and then that other one crossin’ over in front of it, stickin’ up?” he asks Claude. “That’s bones.”
“Don’t know how a man spots somethin’ like that paddlin’ by in a boat,” Claude tells Sheriff Breaux.
“Experience. I seen all kind of things doing this job. Don’t go in too fast now. You gonna stir up whatever’s down there.”
“What should I do?”
“Paddle up close.”
Claude paddles to within about fifteen feet of the jumble of reeds and the two strange white bones jutting up from the grassy lagoon.
“Can you get in any closer?” the Sheriff asks.
The sides of the pirogue start scraping the dried tan brush. Claude lets the long oar sink down until it hits bottom and then he pushes them up through the reeds, stopping when the bow of the boat is right up next to the bones. Sheriff Breaux leans over beside his bench seat and opens the black satchel he brought along with him, pulls out a pair of latex gloves. He fits one over each of his hands, waves his fingers as they find their way into place, then the Sheriff shifts around and lies down flat, his arms dangling over the bow of the boat.
“You not gonna touch that, are you?” Claude asks.
“That’s exactly what I’m gonna do. Bring that ice chest you brought along up here.”
“Shit, you ain’t gonna stick any dilapidated bones in my ice chest, Elton. It’s brand new.”
“Hell, I’ll buy you another one.”
“What I’m gonna do with my cold drinks?”
Sheriff Breaux turns back, scowling at him. “Would you just empty that shit out and hand me the ice chest?”
Claude bends down and opens up his brand new red Coca-Cola ice chest. He sifts through the loose ice and then removes two Pepsis and a cool six-pack of Budweiser, stows them under the back seat. He hefts the cooler up toward the front of the pirogue. Claude leans out, peers over the Sheriff’s shoulder and down into the dark water. Sheriff Breaux cranes out over the edge of the boat again, touching each of the bones like he’s testing how firm a grasp the mud has upon them. Little wavelets of black water lap against his gloves as they feel down beneath the water line. The Sheriff grasps the protruding ends of each bone and then slowly lifts them from the muck.
Up comes what’s left of a girl’s forearm, a near perfectly preserved right hand dangling at the end of it.
Sheriff Breaux turns back at Claude, grim satisfaction written on his face. Claude has made his way back to the rear end of the pirogue. He’s standing there now, staring holes into Sheriff Breaux’s eyes, his thirty-ought six rifle raised and trained straight at the Sheriff’s head.
“I’d let that arm go if I was you, Elton.”
The satisfaction melts off the Sheriff’s face. Sweat rolls from his forehead. Fresh perspiration has wept through his short-sleeved shirt at the underarms. “What the fuck you think you’re doin’, Claude?”
“Let it go. I ain’t gonna say it another time.”
The brush behind the stand of reeds they’re parked in thrashes back, and the jaws of a great gator swing open just below Sheriff Breaux’s hands. The alligator snatches the arm away, perfect hand, grisly radius, ulna and all. The beast’s snout thrashes into the Sheriff, knocking his forearms clear of the girl’s hand. Sheriff Breaux rises to his knees, but then the gator’s second twisting thrust bowls him back, his head knocking flush into the front bench seat of the pirogue, his wide hips rolling up against the boat’s sidewall. The blow jolts the Sheriff’s Beretta from its holster. The gun clanks off the boat bottom and comes to rest next to the Coca-Cola ice chest.
In one whirling motion the gator whips the arm up into the air and lets gravity force the morsel down its great gullet. The animal thrashes alongside the pirogue below the agitated surface of the lagoon and then disappears into the murky shallows.
Sheriff Breaux sits up against the front edge of the boat. His eyes won’t focus. He hears Claude saying something. He reaches to his holster, but can’t find his gun. He scrabbles around the front of the pirogue in a desperate search. Claude is saying something to him; Claude’s rifle is aimed off over the side of the boat.
“…all right, Elton?”
Sheriff Breaux stops feeling around with his hands and shakes his head side to side. His vision clears. Something warm is streaming down into his eyes. He wipes at his forehead with his hand, and gazes down to find his latex-wrapped fingers slick with his own blood.
“Talk to me, Elton. You OK?”
“Holy… shit, what?”
Claude laughs. “Hell, you gonna be all right. I done tol’ you to drop that hand.”
Sheriff Breaux raises his hand back up and presses it against the throbbing pain on his forehead. Even through his latex gloves he can feel a good inch-long gash in his scalp right near his hairline. He dips his hand back down to his holster. He’s still missing his gun. He scans around the boat bottom.
Claude smiles a broad smile at Sheriff Breaux. “It’s over by the ice chest.”
Sheriff Breaux doesn’t move. He raises his left hand and keeps it pressed firm against his head. His other hand is covered in blood, the red droplets leaking through his fingers and down onto the bottom of the boat. He blinks mightily, and then blinks again, staring up into Claude’s grin.
“Go ’head on. Pick it up,” Claude says. Claude starts snickering, the roll of his laughter echoing through the trees as the water, still roiling in the wake of the gator’s strike, gurgles into stillness. The Sheriff remains motionless. Claude lowers his rifle and leans it down behind the back seat of the boat. He stops cackling and sputters, breathing in and out hard. He smiles down at Sheriff Breaux. “Boy, you gonna feel that one tomorrow. Thought that ‘ol gator was gonna take your head clean off.” Claude edges over to the front of the pirogue near the ice chest. He leans over and picks up the Sheriff’s Beretta, looks it over. “You shouldn’t be carrying this pea-shooter with the safety off.”
Claude twists the Beretta back and forth, eyeing the glistening black gunmetal. He clicks the red safety switch near the trigger, turns the pistol around and hands it back to Sheriff Breaux grip first. Sheriff Breaux looks into Claude’s smoky eyes.
“Thanks,” he says to Claude, and holsters his weapon.
Claude slides back toward the boat’s rear bench and sits down. “You gonna need a few stitches to close that up. Guess we better head on back now, huh?”
Sure as shit, you could ‘a just taken him out, clean. One shot to the temple and that gator would ‘a had more than just that girl’s hand to chomp on.
Naw, you just hold on, hold on back now. That Sheriff turns up dead… hell, if he even so much as disappears, ‘ol Teddy down at the General Store would tell everyone. He knows you done took Elton down into the swamp this morning. Deputies would be on you like white on rice. No way you could beat that rap. You’d have to disappear, and hell, you don’t have no place to go. You just hold on. He still ain’t got a lick of evidence you did anything, and now he never will thanks to ‘ol Al E. Gator. But boy, that Elton’s sharper than a razorblade.
Sheriff Breaux’s able to stanch the flow of blood from the cut on is head. After he removes his latex gloves and gets comfortable on the front bench seat of the boat he begins brooding.
The return trip is slow. The midday temperature’s in the nineties, and the humidity is like a damp bed sheet fluttering against the men’s faces. Bayou Belle Terre has opened back into a wide channel, the water splashing up against the bow as the pirogue chugs back to the General Store dock.
“Why didn’t you shoot?” Sheriff Breaux asks Claude.
Claude’s hand wanders down from the left sidewall of the boat to his rifle again. “What reason would I have to shoot you?”
“Not me, the alligator. Why didn’t you take a shot at that alligator?”
Claude pauses, his right hand gripped tight on the handle of the outboard motor. “You’s too close. If I was to take a shot at that gator and miss I might just accidentally kill you.”
“You could have taken a shot after I fell back.”
“Naw. What’s the use of that?”
“Gators swallow their food whole. That arm, that girl’s arm, it’s still inside that gator, probably still in one piece.”
“We ain’t never gonna find that ‘ol boy, Elton, not in a million years.”
“How do you know?”
“Give it up. You done tried, but you ain’t never gonna find what’s left of that girl.”
Claude turns and gazes back toward Paradise Island. Silence overtakes them. The breeze picks up. Clouds with flat gray bottoms dot the eastern horizon. Claude turns back around, but not in time to avoid a shard of driftwood floating across their path. The flotsam knocks up against the hull and thuds again and again as it bounces along under the boat bottom. Claude tugs on the till to avoid plowing over the wood with the motor. He spits out a nervous laugh as the log floats away.
Sheriff Breaux looks Claude in the eye. “Tell you what, after I get this thing sewn up we gonna head straight back out to that inlet.”
Claude wrings his hands together. “Well, you can get someone else to take you ‘cause I ain’t wasting any more of my time.”
Sheriff Breaux turns and looks up into the distance. The boat hums along through the rippling water. Muddy brown wavelets stirred up by the wind shine yellow at the tips, their rounded peaks kissing at the midday sun. A steady wind whispers through the reeds along the banks of Bayou Belle Terre. Sheriff Breaux takes in a deep breath, and then again he looks to the back of the boat.
“Was,” he calls over to Claude.
“’Was.’ You said, ‘was’ when you first started talking about what happened to Ginny, when we first started heading out to the inlet.”
“You said, ‘Pretty as she was, she probably run off with someone.’ Why’d you say ‘was’ if you figured she was still alive?”
The air fluttering by them seems to thicken. Claude’s face sinks into a deep scowl, so much so his bottom lip protrudes out past his overbite. He rubs his left hand against the stock of his rifle. Sheriff Breaux lifts his own hand up against his hip. His Beretta is there, the grip fitting smooth into his grasp as he draws it from its holster. He nudges off the safety with his thumb. Claude takes his right hand off the till and eases it over toward the rifle, but then Sheriff Breaux raises his pistol and points it at Claude.
“Don’t even think about it.”
Claude freezes, stares back at the Sheriff with a look of disgust on his face.
“You should’ve shot me back at Paradise Inlet, back when you had a chance,” he tells Claude.
“You know you ain’t gonna arrest me, Elton. You ain’t got one lick of evidence.”
“So, you killed her?”
“I ain’t sayin’ nothin’.”
“You killed her, and dumped her body off in Paradise Inlet, let those gators get after her. You’re a fuckin’ animal, Claude. No, you’re worse than a fuckin’ animal. At least those gators kill outta hunger.”
“And you think I ain’t hungry? What if I did kill her? Shit, you ain’t never gonna prove nothin’, Elton.”
Sheriff Elton Breaux takes in his surroundings. He’s still got his left hand pressed up against the gash in his scalp. He scans around at the thick reeds lining the desolate edges of Bayou Belle Terre. The wide waterway is empty, peaceful, no one around for miles.
“You’re right,” Sheriff Breaux tells Claude. “I’ve got no evidence you killed Ginny Robichaux. I’ve got no clear motive, no evidence you had the means, no proof you had opportunity. But I can smell something rising off you, Claude, something that smells to me an awful lot like guilt.” Sheriff Breaux cocks back the hammer of his Beretta. “Might have turned out better for you if I had had some evidence, not just this rotten guilty stink. You done it. I know you done it. Say it.”
“Hell, I ain’t sayin’ another thing. Put that piece down, Elton.”
“If you have any final words you want to say to your maker, I suggest you say ‘em now, Claude.”
You just sit tight. Don’t say a goddamned thing. Ain’t no way ‘ol Elton’s gonna pull that trigger.