Page 58 of Bayou Hero

If he’d stayed in the civilian world, would life have been easier for Landry? Instead of being rigid and unforgiving, would Jeremiah have allowed his son the same carefree life he’d lived?

“To start, you said. They’d had the usual interests to start. What did those interests become?”

He studied his hands a long time, and she lowered her gaze to them, too. His hands were large, his fingers long, the nails trimmed short. There were a few ragged cuticles, a few calluses, a scar that was several shades lighter than the surrounding skin. They were good hands that could give pleasure and soothe sorrow and cradle his young nieces and make a woman feel safe. Like any hands, they could cause pain, too, but she was sure they didn’t.

And although she took care of her own safety, she could use some pleasure and soothing and cradling.

She suspected he could, too, especially once this conversation was over.

“Like I said, they had a name for themselves, like they were some sort of covert society. Over time, that was what they became. I don’t know when it started, only when they dragged me into it. I had just turned eleven.”

An initiation? Had the men brought their sons into the group to tutor them on their way to becoming drunken reprobates? What would such an initiation entail? Alcohol, certainly. Sex, most likely. A prostitute, bought and paid for, happy birthday to you.

“The old man took me to a run-down place they’d rented at the end of the street in a run-down neighborhood. There was a living room, a kitchen, a bathroom, and the rest of the rooms were bedrooms barely big enough for a bed. There were bars on the windows and heavy-duty locks on the doors.”

A bad feeling twinged in Alia’s stomach. Maybe the admiral hadn’t wanted a prostitute to initiate his son into sex. Maybe he’d chosen someone closer to Landry’s age, someone a boy might pick for himself, a pretty girl, a virgin herself, who wouldn’t go along willingly.

The men’s mischief had included assault, he’d said. Maybe rape, too? Kidnapping?

She was regretting all the lemon cookies, rumbling quietly in her stomach as she waited for Landry to go on. One glance showed his stomach was just as unsettled; his face was pale, his eyes stony, and his hands were trying to curl into knots. Only his strength of will kept them flat against the bench.

Experience told Alia to remain quiet and let Landry continue at his own pace. The woman inside wanted to encourage him, to clasp his hand in hers, to show the sympathy and anger rising inside, to give him a safe place while he related an ugly experience.

She didn’t do any of that. She clenched her own hands together, and she waited, time crawling like tiny unseen bugs over her skin.

Clouds passed over the sun, bringing an added layer of shade, at the same time the breeze picked up. She would like to think a shower was coming, long enough to lower the temperature but brief enough not to interrupt the day. Hardly a breath later, though, the clouds moved on and the sun shone hotter than ever.

Finally she spoke. “I could call Jimmy if you’d feel more comfortable.”

“God, no. This is hard enough without adding someone else to the audience.” He exhaled loudly. “Okay. Jeffrey Wallace and I called them drunken pervs. They met every Saturday night that all five were in town. It was a night for revelry, they said. In the beginning, they brought food, booze and girls. Women. Hookers, I guess. A few times I saw Wallace give them money when the night was over. But not the first night. The first night...”

This time his fingers did curl into fists, bent so tightly his knuckles turned white.

“All five families were so damn important. They took what they wanted, and to hell with anyone who interfered. It didn’t matter whether they wanted property or a position or money or someone else’s girlfriend or sex with each other’s—”

The words damming, he got abruptly to his feet and walked away. Alia sat motionless.

Oh. God.

She bent forward at the waist, breathing deeply, of damp earth and maturing vegetables and faint scents of fertilizer. She inhaled good stuff, exhaled bad. Inhaled the smell of cucumbers on the vine and breathed out the filth that just kept growing inside her.

When she was sure she could stand without puking, she did so. With one arm, she swiped sweat from her face, tightened her shoulders and stiffened her spine, then went in search of Landry.

She found him kneeling between rows of tomatoes, plucking weeds, pushing back leaves, searching out fruits. He laid a couple of large green tomatoes in a dusty basket he’d picked up somewhere, then added a handful of grape tomatoes.

“Miss Viola always had trouble estimating how many plants to buy. If one tomato plant was good, then weren’t ten ten times better? She used to send Mary Ellen and me home with bags stuffed with corn on the cob, beefsteak tomatoes, cucumbers as big as our arms and enough strawberries to stain every piece of clothing we owned. I asked her once why she planted so much, and she said, ‘I just don’t know when to stop.’”