“You know how some people are born to Greatness? Well, Bobbie Faye Sumrall woke up one morning, kicked Greatness in the teeth, kneed it in the balls, took it hostage and it’s been begging for mercy ever since.”
—a former Louisiana mayor after Bobbie Faye accidentally ran her car into his office, knocking pages of fraud evidence into the street, which helped land him in Federal prison.
Something wet and spongy plunked against Bobbie Faye’s face and she sprang awake, arms pin wheeling. “Damn it, Roy, you hit me with a catfish again and I’m gonna—” Whoa. Everything was dark in her cramped trailer. There was no catfish, no little brother Roy pretending innocence. Of course she’d been dreaming, because Roy was twenty-six now, not ten. Still a complete pain in the ass, though.
She swiped at the cold rivulets of wetness running down her face. “What the fuck was that?” she muttered to no one in particular. “And why the hell am I wet?”
“You gots a s’imming pool inside.”
Bobbie Faye squinted in the half-dark and focused on Stacey, her five-year-old niece, whose blond pigtails were haloed in the blue bug light emanating from just outside the trailer window. Then she peered at the wet Nerf bat Stacey dropped to the floor.
Check that. A Nerf bat floating a good two inches above the lime green shag carpet.
“Shit!” Bobbie Faye stood, flinching as the icy water covered her ankles. “Fuck. Damn fuck fuckity shit.”
“Momma says you shouldn’t cuss so much.”
“Yeah? Well your Momma should quit drinking, too, kid, but that ain’t likely to happen either.”
Shit. That was evil. She checked Stacey’s reaction, but her niece was preoccupied with the soggy Nerf bat again and hadn’t seemed to hear. Thank God. She didn’t mean to harm the little rug rat. And how was she supposed to remember to be nice at four-freaking A.M.? Who the hell would expect her to be nice anyway? Lori-freaking-Ann, that’s who. Her pill-popping, wine-swigging lush of a little sister whose plastered-on Grace Kelly smile made her look efficient and serene, even when she wobbled into a wall and fell on her ass.
Bobbie Faye never got to look serene.
Sonofabitch. And today was the day the Social Services lady was scheduled to come by. At four-thirty that afternoon. To judge whether Bobbie Faye was providing Stacey with a safe and stable home Bobbie Faye shuddered as the icy water lapped at her ankles. Somehow, she was supposed to fix. . . whatever the hell this mess was. . . in time to preside at the opening ceremony of the Contraband Days Festival and get back before four-thirty to prove she could be a good foster parent while Lori Ann was pulling her court-ordered four-month drying-out stint at the Troy House.
Oh, flipping yippee.
Water splashed against her knees, and she looked down at Lori-Ann’s little ankle biter stomping on the carpet as they squish-squished their way down the hall.
“Your hippos are swimmin’.” Stacey laughed, pointing at the glow-in-the-dark hippos dancing across Bobbie Faye’s thin white cotton PJs. Then the monster child jumped again, hard, splashing water up to Bobbie Faye’s elbows.
“For Christ’s sake, Stacey, if you hop around one more time, I’m gonna turn you into a frog.”
Stacey giggled, but at least she stopped jumping.
Bobbie Faye stood in front of the cramped utility closet of her tiny, dark trailer and glared at the culprit: her washing machine, run amok. Water geysered from somewhere behind the vibrating piece-of-crap appliance. If she’d had a gun, she’d have shot it. Several times. Happily. She twisted knobs, pressing buttons broken so long ago, there was no telling what they had originally been meant to do.
She wanted to stomp or snarl that this was so not happening to her, but she was awake enough now to be mature in front of Stacey. She could do mature. She was twenty-eight years old, the oldest sibling and the one the other two constantly turned to when they screwed up; of course she could do mature. And solve problems. She was a paragon of problem-solving, and she slammed her fist down on the machine, hoping to dislodge whatever it was that was causing the crisis. The machine shuddered, the water gushed higher, and in that moment, seriously mature went straight to hell. Bobbie Faye hauled off and kicked the machine, then yelped and squirmed in pain because frozen toes do not take too well to sudden impact with metal.
Bobbie Faye squeezed her eyes shut, hopping on the other foot and biting her lip to keep from spouting a new stream of expletives. Way to use a brain cell, genius. Stacey took one gander at the hopping and went straight back to jumping with the enthusiasm of a five-year-old on a post-Easter morning sugar high, soaking everything in her path.
And this is the kid who throws a tantrum if I even look like it’s time for her bath.
There were two things Bobbie Faye knew for certain. One, a day without disaster would be a day in someone else’s life. And two, she was going to kill her brother Roy for not showing up to fix the washing machine like he’d promised.
She sloshed through the kitchen to the back door and opened it, hoping the water would rush out; it barely trickled. The trailer floor had already sagged below the threshold, turning her ancient trailer into a bowl.
Wonderful. The bathtub leaks, the trailer doesn’t.
Bobbie Faye slumped a moment, barely resisting the urge to pound her head against the door frame. This was her one day off. She’d worked extra hours all week just to be able to relax this morning and take her time to get ready for the festival’s opening ceremonies. She hadn’t thought anything could top the thunderstorm that blew through on last year’s opening day and knocked a tree onto her truly first pretty car, a slightly banged up purple NISSAN 300ZX. Sure, it was used, high mileage, and pulled heavily to the left, but it was shiny, with only two rusts spots. The tree could have fallen any other direction and nothing would have been damaged. Of course, that would mean this was someone else’s life. It didn’t help when she learned she had, just that day, received a cancellation notice from her car insurance. (Not a single person, not even her friends, ever believed she really hadn’t seen that fire-truck barreling through the intersection with all of its lights on and sirens blazing. She thought the fireman was clearly at fault, though she did feel pretty awful when, to avoid hitting her, he slid into a light pole, knocking it through the roof of the grocery store on the corner.) Her insurance company paid all of the claims. And cancelled her.
But this year? It was going to be different; she was going to have a pleasant, peaceful day if she had to maim and kill to get it. There were no storms, the insurance was paid up on the rickety cracker-box-on-wheels Honda Civic she’d bought to replace her cool little sports car, she had planned to have plenty of time to get ready and avoid the traffic jams, she had washed her clothes last night and all she’d had to do was toss them into the dryer. . .
So of course, she was standing in two inches of water inside her trailer.
There was no way in hell she was bailing all of this by herself. Roy was going to get his sorry ass over here and help. She went to the phone to call him, flipped on the living room light and gasped. Waves rippled across the floor. Water slapped at the bottom of the more shabby-than-chic sofa and chair and filled the video bay of her ancient VCR set on the low shelf below the TV. And on the carpet near the sofa where she’d left it was her mom’s Contraband Days scrapbook. Drowned.
Bobbie Faye’s face hurt with the strain of holding back tears. Her mother had kept that scrapbook for more than twenty years. When Bobbie Faye was seven, her mom had let her glue on a pirate eye-patch on the cover, denoting the history the festival. Well, her mom had been drinking and hadn’t really seemed to notice the eye patch and sequins until a few days later, but she let Bobbie Faye keep them on there and showed them proudly to her friends, so that was almost as good, especially when her mom made her an eye patch to wear to that year’s pirate costume contest.
Pirates, Bobbie Faye had learned the way other kids learned catechism, had found the multitude of bayous and marshlands in south Louisiana perfect for transporting loot and contraband into the growing territory. The pirates had hidden in south Louisiana for the same reasons the Cajuns had fled there from Nova Scotia: sanctuary. It was a place to be whoever the hell you wanted to be. A close-knit, family sort of place, where watching your neighbor’s back was as standard as having a nodding awareness that they just might be crazy as loons, and that was okay, too.
After years of digging up half of Calcasieu Parish in a vain attempt to find the buried treasure, the locals eventually, reluctantly, gave up. Well, not entirely. Bobbie Faye remembered when she was a kid and learned there was a place named Contraband Bayou which was said to have been the home of a few pirates who supposedly hid jewels and gold somewhere back where the bayou ended. She tagged along when Roy and Lori Ann’s dad took them fishing because he was going to go right by the famous bayou and Bobbie Faye was sure if he’d just let her out, she’d find that treasure. All she got for her trouble was a bad case of poison sumac and a good view of a bunch of deeply dug holes. So much for history.
As it was, history settled lazily into myth which eased along into celebration and the Contraband Days Festival was born. It was a crazy, lively festival where everyone dressed up as pirates for twelve days in May for parties, music, dancing, and all sorts of events. Tractor pulls! Races! Parades! Buccaneers! There were “official” pageants every year, but Bobbie Faye’s mom (and her mom before her, and so on) were the unofficial “Queens” – a title started so far back in time, no one really remembered how it was handed down generation to generation. Bobbie Faye’s mom had kept a scrapbook of all her Contraband memories… and gave it to Bobbie Faye just before she died, when she had also passed her the duty of being Queen.
Bobbie Faye pulled the scrapbook out of the water, her heart sinking as she slowly turned the first sodden page. Spidery scrawl ran in an inky river, washing most of the words to nothingness; the water had faded the old photos to murky shadows and all of the mementoes were a soggy mess. The once dried petals of a rose her mother had worn on her last parade fell apart under Bobbie Faye’s touch.
Fury slammed her adrenaline up another notch; at any moment, the back of her head was going to pop clean off, especially as the cold water wicked farther up her PJs. The scrapbook was Bobbie Faye’s hold on a tenuous place, the ‘before’ as she liked to think about it. Before her mom started wearing the big floppy hats when her hair was getting inexplicably thinner and thinner, before she started wearing the weird combination of clothes and her morning eggs smelled just a shade more like rum than eggs ought to smell, before Bobbie Faye recognized her mom was a little too dancey-happy most days, jitterbugging on the coffee table (before it broke), before Bobbie Faye knew what the word cancer meant. She looked back at the destroyed scrapbook she held. If Roy had shown up like he promised and fixed the damned washing machine, this wouldn’t have happened. Bobbie Faye stared out her front window, past the gravel road, and fantasized briefly that she could zero in on wherever Roy was with a laser intensity that would fry his ass on the spot.
There was just no telling where he was, and getting him on the cell phone would take an act of God. Check that. It would take an act of some willing life-sized Barbie type. He could be anywhere. His fishing camp south of her trailer park, where there were hundreds of little bayous and marshy wetlands (or as Roy put it, plenty of escape routes). Or just north of her trailer park, hiding in a hole-in-the-wall bar somewhere in the muddy industrial city of Lake Charles, a place Bobbie Faye thought of as the kind of cranky, independent southern town that had never really given a rip what its image might be, although if someone had labeled it “home of the hard drinkers who make Mardi Gras revelers look like big fluffy candy-asses,” it might have staggered to attention and saluted. Knowing Roy the way she did, she figured he wasn’t anywhere near his own apartment in the heart of the city. Probably in some stupid poker game or, God help him, at one of his many girlfriends’ places. He can run, she thought, but he can’t hide.
“Where’s Roy?” the smaller of the two sets of Muscles asked Dora.
“I ain’t seen Roy since he left the bar. Besides, I’m married. What would Roy be doing here?”
“Same thing he’s been doing ever since your Jimmy’s been out on the oil rig,” the shorter man said. He peered around the room and allowed himself a small shudder. “You get attacked by lace or something? This is a fucking nightmare. No wonder Jimmy’s always gone out on the rig.”
Roy knew without being able to see her that Dora had poufed out her collagen-enhanced bottom lip, pouting.
“Nice doorknobs, though,” the larger man said, and Roy grimaced. If he was in a bar, and really really drunk, he’d fight a guy that size for mentioning Dora’s boobs. Even if you’re boinking another guy’s wife, there was a certain etiquette to maintain.
“I don’t know nothin’ ’bout Roy,” Dora insisted.
“You know where he is,” the smaller of the muscles said. “Roy’s got something we want, and we know he came here.”
“Yeah,” the other mountain of muscles chimed in. “He always comes here. Don’t he, Eddie?” He broke into a giggle, and although the Mountain was almost double the smaller guy’s size, Roy pegged him as younger and a little simple, maybe; despite the fact he lost at poker every other Friday, Roy considered himself a pretty good judge of character. Whoever they were, they couldn’t be here for his bookie debts because he was kinda sorta caught up, and the three he still owed usually didn’t send knee breakers until you were more than a couple of months past due (he still had eight days). And he was pretty sure the guy who bought that boat hadn’t figured out that Roy hadn’t owned it in the first place. No, these guys had to be here about something personal. Nothing he couldn’t talk his way out of. God knows he’d done it a hundred times before.
Roy saw Dora’s calf contract as she inhaled quickly. Past her very fine calf, Roy could see that the smaller set of Muscles, apparently named Eddie, had a gun aimed at her.
The seat creaked as Dora shifted above him, and dust fell into his twitchy nose just as Roy’s cell phone, adjusted to maximum volume so he could hear it in the bar, vibrated against his jean pocket and trumpeted the LSU fight song. His heart ramped up three billion beats in .02 seconds as he frantically tried to slap the phone off.
And managed to turn it on so everyone in the room could hear Bobbie Faye’s shout, muffled, but not nearly enough, by his jeans.
“Roy! You sonofabitch! You promised you would fix this washing machine for me and I even paid you already! Now get your ass—” He slapped it off and stayed very still, pretending to himself it hadn’t really happened and no one heard it.
Bedroom light flooded into the window-seat as the lid snapped open and Eddie bent over, grinning, his horribly disfigured face inches away. Roy flinched at the grotesque features where his nose zigzagged from having been broken too many times and his right side of his face looked slightly caved in and sagged lower than his left.
“H’lo, Roy. I know somebody who wants to see you.”
“Uh, well, um, thanks. But see, that was my big sister on the phone and I gotta get over there and fix that thing, or she’s gonna kick my ass.” Roy eased out of the window-seat, trying for nonchalant, until Eddie pointed the gun at his chest.
“Seriously, guys. She’ll kill me.”
“If there’s anything left of you when we’re done,” Eddie said, “we’ll pay to watch.” He jammed the gun into Roy’s side and Roy turned to Dora with a pleading gleam.
“Babe? Can you call Bobbie Faye and tell her I might be running late?”
“No calls,” Eddie told her. “You stay quiet, we don’t need to come back. Got that?”
Dora nodded, clutching her robe around her as they hustled Roy out of the room.
“Man, I hafta call her,” Roy said, turning his charm smile onto full wattage. “You have no idea how crazy Bobbie Faye is.”
“That’s the least of your worries,” Eddie said.
“Hmph,” Dora said, following them down the hall, “Y’all don’t know Bobbie Faye.”
There was an odd, rubbery scrunching sound behind her and then the watery echo of waves rippling against the walls. Bobbie Faye turned around to find Stacey hell-bent on “rafting” on her plastic Big Bird floatie, her butt dragging on the floor as she scooted it down the hall.
“Stace. For. The. Last. Time. This is not a swimming pool. Go find your sand bucket like I told you to and bail the water out the front door.”
“What’s ‘bail’? Mamma says you bail Uncle Roy outta jail a lot.”
Aaaaaannnnd it was official: they had screwed her up by age five, a record even for the Sumrall family.
“Well, kiddo, it’s kinda the same thing as scooping up water and throwing it out the door. It’s getting somebody outta trouble and Aunt Bobbie Faye ends up broke before it’s done.”
After settling Stacey to scoop out water at the front door, Bobbie Faye had the distinct impression that everything around the perimeter of the room sloped toward the center. She walked to the middle of the room, and sure enough, the water was deeper there – nearly four inches versus just two near the door. This little funhouse event definitely fell into the oh fuck category.
Bobbie Faye decided she wasn’t going to panic. Not at all. There would be no panicking in the Sumrall household. Which was when she noticed the trailer starting to make creaking and groaning noises. So not helping with the whole not-panicking decision.
As the daylight ripened into actual morning, Bobbie Faye ventured outside to see if there was any other way to cut off the water. It struck her that the trailer looked swollen, and with the floor sagging on sad little piers supporting the structure, it looked like a bloated PMSing woman forced to wear stilettos.
No word from Roy. No clue how to shut off the stupid valve. No choice.
She was going to have to call the emergency line at the water company. Which meant talking to Susannah. Who still blamed Bobbie Faye for the entire Louisiana State University hearing Susannah lose her virginity to the Assistant Dean of Accounting when Bobbie Faye inadvertently left the intercom system turned on in the Dean’s office during an extremely brief stint as a student-worker. (And really… who knew accountant types could be so loud?)
It didn’t help that Susannah’s parents were faculty and heard everything first-hand.
But this was a certified emergency, and Susannah was just going to have to dispatch someone.
He leaned forward a little, scanning from Eddie, who was driving, to The Mountain, whose stomach was growling in the passenger seat.
“Is this about Dora?”
Neither of the men answered.
It was unlikely; Jimmy was a roughneck, but he was also pretty straightforward, and if he had suspected Roy of boinking Dora, Jimmy wouldn’t have wasted good money on goons. He’d have just beat the hell out of him.
“Ellen?” No answer. “Or . . . Vickie? Thelma?”
Maybe it was the thousand bucks Roy owed Alex after dodging out of the last poker game. But . . . as much as Alex might want to kill him, Roy knew Alex didn’t want to have to deal with Bobbie Faye again. Ever. And hurting Roy would mean lots of Bobbie Faye in Alex’s face. The other guys at the poker table had made Roy promise not to mention Bobbie Faye any more because every time he did, Alex twitched, and nobody wanted a gun-runner twitchy.
As Eddie and the Mountain drove Roy towards Baton Rouge, Roy pondered his ever-growing list of ex-girlfriends and their husbands who might want him hurt (or a little bit dead) if they’d been able to find him, but he couldn’t see any of them going to this much trouble and expense when a good rifle and a bateau were enough to drop him to the bottom of some little-known bayou.
When Susannah heard Bobbie Faye’s voice, she hung up.
Fifteen minutes later, Bobbie Faye managed to force her to stay on the line and listen to the problem.
And called the local radio station.
When she finally got back on the line, the DJ could be heard on the three-way conversation as he broadcast her latest disaster, and Bobbie Faye knew Susannah was enjoying her revenge. To make it even more fun, Susannah’s big helpful advice to Bobbie Faye was to shut off the water at the valve.
“Well, duh. I did everything but sacrifice chickens to get it to budge. If God Himself tried to turn it, He’d get an inferiority complex.”
“Fine,” Susannah said, a bit too happily. “I’ll send someone out. They’ll be there sometime between noon and three.”
“I can’t wait until three for someone to show up. You ever see The Titanic? Nothing. Nothing compared to this, Susannah. And I can’t turn off the main valve—there’s a lock on it and the lot manager is gone for the wee—”
She looked at the dead phone and then at the base unit perched on the arm of her more-shabby-than-chic sofa when it struck her that the lamp was off. And the hall light. She growled her way past Stacey, who had not only ceased to scoop out water, but had somehow found not one, but two, frogs, and was letting them swim around the living room.
Something clinked and rattled outside on the side of her trailer.
She sloshed her way through the sagging living room to her front door, pulling the wet and now clingy PJs away from her body, knowing she ranked skankier than a nutria straight out of a mud pit, but if it was who she suspected, she didn’t have time to waste changing into clothes. Sure enough, there on the gravel drive, facing out, its engine running for a fast getaway, was a Gulf-South Electric Utilities truck.
She hurtled down the stairs and around to the electric meter. The utilities worker saw her just as he clipped the red tag-wire onto the metal box, preventing her from rigging her meter back on when he left. He cringed as she marched toward him, using his clipboard to shield his face, then his groin (then his face, then his groin; he finally chose his groin).
“Good choice. Which is not going to help you one little bit to keep that,” she gestured, “area. Safe. If you don’t turn my electricity back on.”
Before she could launch an actual attack, he looked at her and then blushed, thoroughly, from his over-sized collarbone to the tips of his rather large and now crimson ears. Then, pointedly gazing away from her, he thrust a letter into her hands.
“I’m sorry, Miss Bobbie Faye. But your check bounced.”
She snatched it, read, and fumed.
“How in the hell am I supposed to come up with a deposit of two hundred and fifty bucks when I obviously couldn’t come up with one-freakin-eighty-seven for the bill in the first place?”
He had inched a step back with every word she spoke, still not meeting her eyes. “I’m really sorry. I wouldn’t do this to you for anything in the world, you being the Contraband Days Queen an’ all, but, you know, it’s my job. They would fire me.”
“You work for dickheads, you know that? I can’t get this money until later, but I’ve got to have the electricity on so I can borrow Nina’s wet-vac to suck up the whole freaking lake in there.” She gestured at the trailer and he gaped a moment at the small trickle of water leaking from one of the bottom seams. “See that? You gotta cut me some slack here. I’m supposed to be at the festival’s starting ceremony in just a couple of hours!”
“I . . . I just can’t. I’m really sorry!” He turned and fled, climbing into his truck before Bobbie Faye could catch up.
“Coward!” she yelled as he peeled out. “Come back here and fight like a man!”
She examined the bill he’d handed her and made a mental list of items she might be able to pawn to cover it, then remembered she’d already pawned them to help pay for her sister’s stay for her “sobriety mummification” (Lori Ann was ever the positive thinker) in a decent detox addiction center.
Bobbie Faye stood in front of her trailer, water dribbling from the front door. The good news was, as bad as things were, at least they couldn’t get any worse.
They stepped out into the tenth floor, where a utilitarian sitting area was lined with rickety metal chairs listing in row. Eddie didn’t bother to press the call button beside a door whose green paint was chipped and mottled and looked as though it had leprosy; instead, he reached below the last broken chair to a lever. A hidden panel beside a dusty plastic fichus swung open. Roy thought that might be a big bloodstain under the fichus, but he wasn’t about to ask. His balls retracted a little (only a little) when they stepped into the room beyond the leprosy door. His adrenaline jumped and his sense of balance wobbled as though he’d stepped through some sort of portal. A line of sweat beaded just above his collar and the air froze in his chest acted like it hadn’t a clue how to escape back out again.
This might be something I can’t talk my way out of.
The foyer sported an impressive imported rug, rich in honeys, golds, and russets. Sculptures perched on granite pedestals and were specially lit from above. There were fancy paintings on the wall, and Roy started wondering just who in the world he had screwed whose dad might have been in the Mafia. This place reeked of money, and not the kind the IRS knew anything about.
They walked through the foyer and into an even more sumptuous office. A thick blue tarp covered yet another expensive rug. Roy looked from the tarp to Eddie.
“Please tell me that’s ‘cuz y’all have a roof leak.”
The Mountain clocked him on the side of his head and Roy crashed down on the tarp, jamming his shoulders when they caught the brunt of his weight, sending waves of pain through to his toes and back again. Nausea spun through his stomach and swam upward, and then the Mountain yanked him up, planted a fist into his face, and this time when Roy hit the tarp — well, once the black dots cleared from his eyes — he saw the toe of an expensive wingtip inches from his face.
“Tie him in the chair, boys,” a baritone voice purred from somewhere above the wingtips. “We have a phone call to make.” He leaned over Roy, his face looming in Roy’s clouding vision. “You’d better hope you’re sister’s home, dear boy.”
He was tied to a chair and positioned in the middle of that blue tarp. The ropes cut into his arms.
Something… someone asked him something. Slowly, noise seeped in. They wanted something Bobbie Faye had.
“I… uh. Why’n’t you ask Bobbie Faye for it?” he slurred, squinting through hazy vision in one eye (the other swollen shut) until the angular face of a well-dressed man came into focus. Roy guessed him to be mid-forties, maybe, and oddly happy. He wore a flawless silk suit, perfectly tailored, which almost managed to give him an appearance of sanity and stability.
He introduced himself as Vincent.
“You see, dear boy,” Vincent said, “We don’t want to kidnap a Contraband Days Queen. There would be far far too many questions, especially with her associations with the police. And your niece? Cute little blonde-haired five-year olds get the Amber alert, and the country would pay attention. As a last resort? Yes. However, you?” Vincent leaned down, filling Roy’s blurry vision. “You are expendable. You’re always disappearing, hiding out from one girlfriend or another. No one will even believe you’re missing until days later, when it no longer matters to us.”
Roy noted the playful tone, the warm smile, and pondered how he was going to charm Vincent. Everything about the man struck Roy as pointy: a chin sharpened to a razor edge, angular eyes, pinched nose, a slash of a mouth, and thin, clothes-hanger elbows. Realizing it was unlikely Vincent would know his way around a John Deere backhoe didn’t cheer Roy up like it usually did. Vincent might be a challenge.
“Your purse was ringing.”
“Stacey! For crying out loud.”
Bobbie Faye jogged up the steps, dug into the damp purse for a cell phone, and scanned the last caller’s ID through the condensation forming on the cell’s small screen. Roy’s name and number flashed, and Bobbie Faye resisted the urge to project her frustration with him onto the phone by squeezing the phone to death. She glanced back at her soaking wet niece splashing and laughing just inside the door.
“Stacey, honey, go find something dry you can wear to school and bring it here.” As Stacey scampered back to her room, Bobbie Faye hit the dial-back feature and got Roy’s voicemail.
“Dammit, Roy, it looks like the Mississippi River just decided to detour through my trailer. You better call me back or I’m going to rip your head clean from your shoulders. You got that?”
She snapped the phone off and steamed. It wasn’t humanly possible to be any more frustrated until she glanced down and made a startling discovery: the silly glow-in-the-dark PJs she’d bought just to make herself laugh were transparent when wet. She thought back to the electricity guy’s blush and realized she’d flashed him. Completely. She wasn’t entirely sure which was worse—to have exposed herself, or to have done it with yellow and pink see-through hippos over her boobs. She would have prayed for a lightning bolt to put her out of her misery, but with the way her luck was running, it wouldn’t kill her, just maim her and give her bad hair for the rest of her life.
Her cell phone rang again and she snatched it open. “Roy. You asshat. I don’t care what bottle blonde or redhead you’re with, if you’re not over here in five minutes—”
“I’m sorta tied up right now,” Roy said, his voice husky and muffled.
Bobbie Faye pulled the phone from her ear, stared at it a second, then slapped it off for fear of what she might say to him. After all the times she’d bailed him out of trouble, hidden him from girlfriends, hidden him from armed and ticked-off girlfriends’ husbands . . . she wanted to kill him. No. Wait. She’d just take out an ad in the paper with a list of all his girlfriends and watch him run. Carmen might go after him with a meat cleaver again, but the idiot almost deserved it. In fact, she might just plan a surprise party for Roy and give all the girlfriends their choice of weapons at the door. As she tallied the list of his exes she could call, the phone rang again and Roy blurted, “Emergency! Don’t hang up!”
“You have got to be kidding me,” she said, gazing back at her trailer, which was now making grating, rumbling noises.
“I’m serious, Bobbie Faye, they’re gonna kill me.”
“Hmph. Like I’m buying that again.”
“I swear, it’s true.”
“Right. Ask ‘them’ if they need any help.”
“You,” Bobbie Faye was venting over the cell, “are the lowest human scum, Roy Ellington Sumrall, so don’t even try to con me.”
Vincent eyed him and Roy shrugged, saying, “I’ve sort of used the old ‘life or death’ thing a couple of times before.”
“A couple of times!” Bobbie Faye shouted, mistaking the point as being directed to her. “Try a couple of dozen. Just get over here and help me. Now!”
The cell clicked off again, and Vincent drew it away from Roy’s ear, tut-tutting him the way he might a child who’d plunged his hand too often into a cookie jar.
“So much for sisterly love, dear boy,” Vincent said, and Roy shuddered at the finality in Vincent’s mock-sympathetic tone. “Maybe I should dispose of you and find someone she cares about.”
“No, really, she cares. I swear. She’s a good sister. You know, when she’s not all batshit crazy. Let me call her back. I’ll convince her. Really.”
Vincent considered Roy for a moment. Roy tuned up his most earnest expression, hoping the swollen lips and bruised eyes didn’t subtract from his attempt at charming Vincent. Vincent laughed and shook his head. At that, Eddie stood up and withdrew the largest blade from the largest sheath Roy had ever seen.
“I believe, dear boy, that you’re trying to stall. Truly, I admire you chutzpah, Roy. A few more years, and you might have managed to elevate it to the level of artistry.”
Vincent nodded to Eddie, who moved closer to Roy, turning the blade so that the light glinted off of it and into Roy’s eyes.
“In fact,” Vincent continued, “I like to think of myself as an artist, too. It takes a true ability to con the conmen when you deal in black market artifacts and expensive stolen art. And while I admire your attempt, dear Roy, and in another situation I might have even taken you under my wing and trained you, right now, I simply have too much money invested in this venture to waste any more time.”
Eddie moved forward and Roy strained to hop his chair away from the men, but the deep plush pile of the rug beneath the tarp kept him from being able to actually hop.
Eddie chuckled. “You havin’ a hernia or something?”
“I promise,” Roy told Vincent, “she really loves me. She’ll give it to you. Easy. I have always been able to count on Bobbie Faye, even if she is certifiable.”
Roy gritted his teeth, trying to hold his “charming” smile. Vincent studied him, then surveyed the desk, the painting on the wall, and the nearby statue on a black granite pedestal, until his gaze rested on a yellowed, water-stained handwritten journal lying open in a glass box in the center of the desk. Then finally, slowly, he turned back to Roy.
“Last chance.” Vincent hit re-dial on the cell phone and held it to Roy’s ear. “No excuses.”
As soon as Bobbie Faye answered, Roy asked, “Have you got a newspaper somewhere around you?”
“Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick, Roy, you promised you wouldn’t drink before noon.”
“On Mom’s grave, Bobbie Faye, I swear, I have not been drinking. I need your help. Please . . . do you have a paper?”
“Yeah, I’ve got one,” she said, picking up the paper.
“Look on page A-five. Top right photo.”
Bobbie Faye wedged the cell phone between her ear and shoulder as she walked back toward her trailer, keeping an eye out for Stacey. The trailer made more worrisome groaning sounds, and as she opened to the right page, she pulled the phone away from her ear and shouted, “Stacey? Honey? Come out here where I can see you, okay?”
On the page in question, there was a photo which showed a blue tarp over a body, and judging from where the hands and feet stuck out from under it, the body had obviously been dismembered.
Bobby Faye recoiled and dropped the paper. “What is that? And what the hell are you showing me that for? Are you nuts?”
“Not ‘what,’ Bobbie Faye. Who.”
She recognized something in his voice she hadn’t noticed before: fear. Real fear, trying to be brave, but not doing so well.
“Remember cousin Alfonse?” he asked.
“The one who used to dress like a chicken mascot down at the Pluck & Fry or the one who used to grow moss for a living?”
“No, not them. The one in jail.”
“Roy, they’re all in jail.”
“Right. I mean Letta’s son. That’s him.”
“Way. He got out early.”
“Oh, bullshit, Roy. This could be anyone. I don’t have time for whatever game you’re playing—”
“I’m serious! Remember when he tried to set the alligators free at the zoo?”
“Oohh. He was missing half of. . . ” She peeked down at the photo on the ground, at the arms and legs sticking out from under the tarp, with one foot definitely a stub. Bobbie Faye’s knees wobbled, a bit watery, and she leaned hard on the railing to her stairs.
“Roy. He’s dead! Oh, geez!” Her stomach flipped and seemed to want to do toe-touches. “What’s this got to do with you?”
“He got out a month ago. These . . . um . . . people here . . . Bobbie Faye, they wanted something and he said he could get it, but when he didn’t, well. You see?”
Bobbie Faye stood outside her creaking trailer, trying to breathe evenly, struggling to comprehend the reality of bright morning sun, water turning her living room into a lake and now, murder. Nothing seemed to fit, as if someone had tossed hundreds of random jigsaw puzzles together, thrown five pieces at her, and expected her to make some sort of finished picture.
“God, Roy, I really don’t have any money,” she said.
“It’s not money, Bobbie Faye. They want . . . ” she heard the pause, and her stomach knotted. “They want Mom’s tiara.”
Bobbie Faye stood dead still, her head echoing with his words, the normal sounds of the morning — the birds, alarm clocks from nearby trailers, a pick-up crunching up the gravel drive — all assaulted her senses, rendering her displaced, disoriented. Anger battled fear, and she wondered if she was being had again.
“You,” she said evenly, “had better be kidding. Mom gave that to me. It’s the only thing I have left of hers.”
“I swear to you, Bobbie Faye. I swear. I don’t know why, but they want it. Real bad.”
“Roy, the last time you conned me out of the tiara, it was so you could wear it to some stupid Mardi Gras parade and you damned near forgot it at a bar in the French Quarter!”
“It’s not like that!” His voice had risen, like he was in pain, and Bobbie Faye could hear him breathing faster. She could also hear the trailer now making bizarre moaning sounds. As she talked, she hurried to the doorway to scoop up Stacey, who was sitting on the threshold tying her wet shoelaces.
“Do they know that tiara’s not worth any actual money?”
“I don’t know. They just want it.”
“But it’s only an old silly thing of Mom’s. She used it for fun, for the Contraband Days parade. I use it for the parade. Anybody could’ve taken it during the parade, easy. Why do this now?
“Besides, it’s not even worth the cost of the safe deposit box. Hell,” she said, moving away from the trailer with Stacey on her hip, “if Lori Ann hadn’t been drinking again and stealing everything Contraband Days-related to sell on e-Bay, I would have just kept it here.”
Stacey face screwed into in a concentrated frown, absorbing the insult to her mom.
“Sorry, kid.” She hugged her niece.
There was a scraping metal-on-metal sound behind her, and Bobbie Faye whipped around in time to see the front half of her trailer’s floor sag from the enormity of the water weight. The trailer burst open and the piers pierced through the floor until the front half rested on the ground. It knelt there like a dying behemoth, the sloshing water forcing it off-balance. Then it slowly leaned away from Bobbie Faye, moaning until it collapsed to the ground with a great metallic ripping and grinding. Water sloshed out everywhere as it died.
Bobbie Faye dropped the cell phone to her side in shock, forgetting the call for a moment. All her brain could process was, “Ohmygod. My trailer. My trailer. Shit. Holy shit.”
“Bobbie Faye?” Roy shouted, his voice dim and tinny from far far away.
“My trailer. Geez, Roy. It’s . . . it’s . . . ”
“Bobbie Faye? I need you to focus, sis!”
“Focus?” She held the cell phone away from her like it was an alien device and then slowly, remembering, put it to her ear.
“Bobbie Faye? Are you there?”
“You sound weird.”
“Don’t mind me. I’m just having an aneurysm.”
“Oh. Okay. Good. So you’ll bring the tiara?”
The tiara. She snapped back to the problem. “Yeah, Roy, I’ll go get it.”
“You can’t contact the police or tell anybody.”
“Like someone would believe me.”
“They said they’re watching you. They’ll know if you call anyone. And they want you to be subtle about it, Bobbie Faye.”
Bobbie Faye frowned at her flattened trailer. “I’m all about subtle right now, Roy.”
“As soon as you get it,” Roy continued, rushed, relief in his voice, “you gotta call my cell. Okay? And then they’ll tell you where you’ve got to take it.”
“Get the tiara, be subtle, call you after. Check.”
The call clicked off and Bobbie Faye glanced from her cell phone to her flattened trailer to Stacey on her hip.
“Is Uncle Roy okay?” Stacey asked.
Bobbie Faye hugged her. Roy was the closest thing to a father figure the kid had ever had. “I’m sure he is, Kiddo.”
“Mamma says you can fix anything.”
Hmph. Bobbie Faye could imagine the sarcasm dripping off Lori Ann when she said it, but the hope in Stacey’s expression squeezed her heart; Bobbie Faye wondered how in the hell she was supposed to live up to that hope. There were people holding her brother hostage, threatening to kill him, and she had no idea where he was.
That’s when she felt it: that fire in the pit of her stomach, that knot of big-sister determination in her chest that had nearly gotten her killed more times than she could count. There were people. Threatening to kill her brother.
Which just fucking pissed her off.
“You gonna fix Uncle Roy?”
She hugged her niece. “I’m gonna give it a helluva shot.”
From Charmed and Dangerous by Toni McGee Causey. Copyright© 2009 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.