Page 51 of Bayou Hero

Alia wondered as he sprawled comfortably in his seat if he’d ever called Camilla mama, or if he’d ever spoken of her with such fondness. He was obviously generous with his affection. How hard had it been for him growing up in the Jackson household? How hard had it been to leave?

Not very, she suspected, especially since he’d had Miss Viola’s support.

But what had prompted a fifteen-year-old boy, even with support from a surrogate grandmother, to move out and basically turn his back on his parents? What had made life at home so unbearable?

And did it have anything to do with the murders?

She didn’t bring up the subject until they’d left the restaurant, her stomach full, her taste buds’ cravings happily satisfied. They’d strolled along the sidewalks, talking little, dodging foot traffic, until they found themselves at Jackson Square. She didn’t know if it was because she’d been speaking her mother’s language or eating her mother’s food, but she found herself copying her mother’s pastime: people-watching, admiring some outfits, coveting a few others and wondering what in the world possessed some people to dress the way they did. It made her homesick.

They wandered into the square and off the sidewalk into a patch of shade, where they settled on the grass. Despite the warm temperature, every bench in the park was occupied, and plenty of people sat or sprawled on the lawn. The sidewalks surrounding the square were crowded, as well. Life as usual in the Quarter.

Landry plucked a blade of grass, flattening it between his fingers. “So you’re half-Vietnamese.”

“And half-Nebraskan. Dad wanted to see someplace besides the plains, so he joined the navy right out of college. Mom’s parents wanted to see something besides war and strife, so they immigrated to the USA when she was seven. We’ve still got family in both places, though, so we visit.”

“And you like most of them?”

She thought about his parents, the grandparents he’d hardly known, the aunts, uncles and cousins he’d hardly seen since moving out. Would he have had more sympathy from them if they’d known the details? Or less?

“I adore most of my family. We have some odd ones—the hellfire-and-brimstone preacher, the hypochondriac, the serial marry-er, the my-kids-are-geniuses moms. But mostly they’re good. My dad’s brothers are farmers. My mom’s brother is retired from the Marine Corps, and her sister runs an internet jewelry business. They’re decent people, and for the most part, their kids are decent people.”

She watched a diaper-clad baby with sweet blond curls circle his family’s quilt on his tiptoes, grinning at every person who looked his way. She had this vague impulse to think, aw, how cute, the way she did with puppies, but it was never in an I want one sort of way. “The good thing about family is if you don’t like the one you’re born into,” she said quietly, “you can always make one of your own.”

“Advice I got from Miss Viola.”

“Did you take it?”

He tilted his head to one side. “Yeah, I guess I did. I’ve got friends—good friends. And I still see Mary Ellen and her family a lot.”

But judging by his expression, a surrogate family left something lacking. Letting go was the key. He had to let go of his past and everyone in it to fully accept his present and future. Murders, she imagined, made that hard to do.

So it was time to bring up one more. “Do you know anyone around here by the last name of Wallace?”

* * *

The name echoing in his head, Landry watched the kid Alia had focused on earlier. Skinny body, long legs and arms, rounded belly and a perpetual grin, he—or she, hard to tell—was apparently comfortable in his role as pampered prince in his own family. He was cute enough to make Landry smile. Not cute enough to stir a longing for a little prince or princess of his own.

As he forced his gaze back to Alia and her question, his jaw tightened fractionally. His shrug was jerky, his casual tone phony. “There was a great blueswoman named Sippie Wallace. Given that she died of natural causes in the ’80s, I doubt she’s the person you’re asking about.”

In fact, he knew she had to be asking about Brad Wallace, or maybe his wife, Adelina, or his children, who had played with Mary Ellen and Landry when they were kids. The whole family had been at the funerals last week, minus the youngest. Adelina had cried a lot, the two girls had been stone-faced and Brad, the lying bastard, had been strong and stoic.

Landry had wished more than once that Wallace would drop dead before the services were over.

The grass he’d been messing with was limp, its color broken down to dark green, its chlorophyll smell on his fingers. He tossed it aside, drew his knees up and rested his arms on them. “You want to know if I remember Brad Wallace. The answer is yes. I haven’t seen any of the Wallaces in years, except for Jeffrey, the youngest kid. Last time I saw him, it was winter and he was sleeping in a doorway a few blocks from here. Why?”