“I’ll be with you in a second,” a voice called as the bell above the door jingled. “Have a seat wherever you like.”
The diner was empty, all but one booth by the window cleared. Michel inhaled the always pervasive scents of coffee, bacon, and burgers. Today there was something else, too. Rich, savory, smoky. His stomach grumbled.
He took a seat at the counter and examined the salt and pepper shakers. Round purple faces with huge blue eyes, white dot noses, small round orange mouths, green stem hats, yellow and orange striped bodies with no limbs. Like something out of a creepy 1930s Warner Brothers cartoon.
He looked down the counter. A pair of roosters. Little Red Riding Hood and the big bad wolf. Two pigs wearing red bibs. A dog peeing on a hydrant. A monkey and a palm tree. It seemed someone had been hunting thrift stores or eBay in an effort to brighten up the place.
The doors to the kitchen swung open and a black plastic busing tub emerged, carried by a thick-waisted brunette in a red-and-white-check uniform. She looked distracted, perhaps a bit worried, Michel thought, but then she saw him and a warm smile spread across her face.
“Black Jack was in yesterday. He didn’t tell me you were coming up this way.”
“I decided to surprise him.”
When he’d first met her, Darlene had been twenty-two, still pretty but already showing the strains of a hard life and a toxic on-and-off-again relationship with the town’s wannabe bad boy, Donny Heath. Now she was married to a jovial ex-jock who taught social studies and coached football and baseball at Port Allen High School, and she had three young sons who all shared their father’s seemingly boundless energy.
Darlene rested the tub on a tray stand, walked over, and gave Michel a hug. “How’ve you been, hon?”
Michel smiled. Though she was a decade younger, she’d always managed to make the term work. “I’m doing fine. How about you? How’s the family?”
Darlene made a face of mock exasperation. “I love my boys, but God couldn’t have given me at least one little girl?” She shook her head, smiled. “Otherwise it’s same old same old. You know how it is around here. Nothing ever changes.”
Michel thought he saw a fleeting hint of anxiety. Except for the armed hillbilly brigade who just left, he thought, but decided to ease into the subject. “Obviously, that’s not true. New salt and peppers shakers.”
Darlene laughed, nodded. “My granny collected them. They’ve been in a box in my mother’s garage for years, but she’s fixing to downsize so she gave them to me. I certainly didn’t need fifty of them, and I’m not really one for a lot of bric a brac, especially with the boys rough-housing all the time, so I brought some here.”
“They’re a nice touch.” He nodded at the set of shakers in front of him and raised a quizzical eyebrow.
Darlene shook head. “I’ve been looking at them my whole life and I have no idea. My granny called them tar babies, but I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have stems growing out of their heads if they were. Best I can figure is eggplants or maybe grapes.”
“So what brings you into town?” Darlene asked.
“I was hoping to pick up a few things, but I see the grocery is closed.”
“About two months now.”
“Is Cyrus…?” Michel let the question hang.
Darlene laughed. “No, he’s too ornery to die, but most of his regular customers have passed. He decided his time’s better spent fishing than sitting in the store hoping someone stops by.”
“So where do people shop now?”
“Well, you can get some basics at the Gas & Grocery in Butte La Rose, but most folks go to the Winn Dixie or Piggly Wiggly in Breaux Bridge.”
“I wish I’d known. I drove in from Lafayette. Passed right by.”
“Well, I guess the surprise is on you then.” Darlene gave him a wry smile. “So, you hungry, or just came in to say hi?”
“Definitely hungry. Something smells good.”
Darlene nodded. “Gator. Sausage or chicken fried.”
“Gator?” Michel replied dubiously.
“You ever tried it?”
Michel shook his head.
“Tastes kind of like chicken, but with a swampy undertaste. In a good way.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Michel deadpanned. “I’ll just have a burger and some fries. Seems like asking for trouble, eating alligator then going to a cabin in the swamp.”
Michel wiped his mouth and put the napkin on his plate. Darlene looked up from the ketchup bottles she was wiping.
“You want some coffee or dessert, hon?”
Michel shook his head. “No, I’m good, thanks, but I’m wondering about something.”
“Who were those guys?”
Darlene did a poor job of feigning ignorance.
Michel jerked a thumb toward the street. “Big trucks? Camouflage? Guns?”
The faint lines in Darlene’s forehead deepened. “You don’t want to know.”
“Like saying that ever worked.”
Darlene gave him a long appraising look. “Well, I suppose your dad and those gossipy old men at the Gator will tell you anyway, but you didn’t hear it here.” She stared him down until he nodded. She blew a stray hair out of her face, checked the street, and leaned closer. “Rumor is we’ve got a bunch of chemists in the bayous.”
“You know, like Walter White.”
Michel looked at her blankly.
“Breaking Bad?” she tried.
“That’s a TV show, right?”
Darlene sighed. “Meth labs.”
Michel smiled until he realized she wasn’t kidding. “In Bayou Proche? Seriously?”
Darlene nodded. “And those boys are the muscle that keeps folks away.” She straightened up. “At least that’s the speculation.”
Michel narrowed his eyes. “Why would anyone set up meth labs out here?”
Darlene gave him a knowing look. “For one thing, it’s remote. And for another, we’ve only got one cop in town, and you know Sweets. So long as they don’t start cooking it in the station, he’s not going to bother them.”
Michel sat back, frowning. Sadly, the last part probably wasn’t much of an exaggeration. “How long has it been going on?”
“It’s been about six months now, give or take.”
“Where are they set up?”
“Well, no one knows for sure, but most likely along the channel. Folks have been hearing a lot of airboats out there at night. And Zinny Alcott snagged something a month or so back while he was out fishing under the bridge. Said it was all wrapped up tight in plastic and tied to the bottom so it floated just below the surface. Course it might have just been some trash.”
“He didn’t check it out?”
Darlene blinked at him. “No, he got his ass out of there.”
Michel took a sip of iced tea. It seemed improbable, but the guys in the trucks were real enough. He wanted a cigarette, but decided to wait. “Okay, so what’s the prevailing assumption?” he asked. “That the airboats bring the stuff out of the bayous and leave it to be picked up in the channel?”
“And where does it go from there? There aren’t any major hubs along the river, are there?”
“The river forks about two miles north. The 3177 runs along that section for nine or ten miles. Lots of places to unload.”
“And where does the 3177 go?”
“Eventually to Simmesport up north, and Butte La Rose going south, but it intersects Interstate 10 four miles west.”
Michel gave her a skeptical look. “Sounds kind of elaborate, don’t you think? Why bother going through all that when they could just jump on the interstate here?”
Darlene didn’t miss a beat. “Well, let’s think about that,” she replied in a tone Michel was sure she usually reserved for her boys. “They’re obviously trying to keep a real low-profile save for the muscle, and let’s face it, they could just be a group of survivalists.” She paused as though the idea had just occurred to her and needed some serious consideration. “Which would actually be kind of ironic given that there aren’t any women to have babies.” She paused again, refocused on her original train of thought. “How many roads are there into Bayou Proche?”
“Right. One two-lane dirt road that wants to call itself a highway. You don’t think it would draw attention if trucks were going up and down that road all day and night?” She watched Michel with raised eyebrows, waiting for him to catch up. “And you have to figure they’re going to a larger city. They’ve been replacing the railings on the bridge for about two months now. If you were driving a truck full of meth to Lafayette, would you want to be stuck in traffic?”
Michel decided not to point out that they’d have the same issue heading to Baton Rouge if they got on the interstate farther west. Instead he said, “Sounds like you’ve given it some thought.”
“Not much else to do some days.”
A brief cloud pass over her face. Michel wondered if she was contemplating the reality of what she’d said, or if it was something more. “If you’re right about the operation,” he said, “it sounds pretty well-organized.” He thought about the kid. He didn’t seem the type to put something like that together. “Tell me about the young one with the rusty beard.”
“Oh, that’s Dale, but the others call him Rooster. Not sure if it’s because he has red hair or because he thinks he’s the cock of the walk.”
“So I noticed. Is he in charge of the others?”
“Oh God, no. That would be his father, Dez. Rooster just likes to play the big man when Dez isn’t around.”
“Sounds like you don’t think much of Rooster.”
“I certainly wouldn’t want my boys growing up like him. He’s mean, a loudmouth, and full of himself. He tried to cop a feel the first few times he came in until I spilled a cup of coffee in his lap. Accidentally, of course.”
Michel smiled. “Of course.”
“At first I thought the others put up with him because he’s Dez’s son, but now I think they’re a little afraid of him.”
“What’s your take on the others?”
Darlene frowned thoughtfully. “No trouble. Polite enough. Good tippers. At first they seemed a little tense whenever someone they didn’t recognize came in, but now that they’ve seen pretty much everyone who lives here, they seem okay. Still…watchful, I guess is the word, but not jumpy. Just always paying attention to what’s going on around them. And I get the feeling they’ve known one another for a good while.”
“For one thing, they’re set in their ways. Always enter in the same order, sit in the same spots, order in the same order.”
“Maybe it’s an OCD support group,” Michel joked.
Darlene shook it off. “No, my youngest has a touch of OCD. Always has to have Eggo blueberry waffles for breakfast. On the same plate. Puts the butter and syrup on the exact same way, cuts them all up into little squares before he’ll start eating.” She rolled her eyes. “The boys definitely aren’t like that.” She absently wiped a clean spot on the counter. “There’s just something that seems practiced about the way they interact.”
Michel thought about how they’d gotten into the trucks. Positions were predetermined, movements efficient. “You think they might be ex-military?”
“Maybe,” Darlene replied. After a moment, she nodded more certainly. “Dez, for sure. Maybe that’s where they all met. Except for Rooster. He’s definitely not ex-military. Maybe ex-reform school. Or ex-prison.”
“Tell me about Dez.”
“Quiet. Not friendly, but not unfriendly either. Reserved, I’d call it. He’s got that quiet authority thing going on. Oh, and he’s got really pretty blue eyes. Like Paul Newman.”
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you have a crush, Darlene.”
Darlene slapped Michel on the hand, but he noticed a slight blush in her cheeks.
“So, has anyone actually talked to Sweets about any of this?” he asked.
“Sure. He says not to worry. Says he’s checked things out and there’s nothing going on. But like I said, you know Sweets.”
“What about the State Police?”
Darlene puffed out a small laugh. “And tell them what? That there are some guys with guns in town? And airboats in the channel at night? It’s Bayou Proche. There are lots of guys with guns and lots of airboats. They’d laugh us right out.”
“Bill Coffin would listen to you.”
Darlene made a face. “Sure he would. He couldn’t get out of here fast enough.”
“It wouldn’t hurt to ask.”
Darlene’s jaw tightened and Michel saw a hardness in her eyes he’d never seen before.
“It wouldn’t hurt you,” she said, “because you can go back to New Orleans. The rest of us don’t have that luxury. If you stir up trouble, we have to live with it. Sure, they might burn your cabin down, but you can afford to build another one. We can’t afford to rebuild the town or our lives.” She took a deep breath and some of the anger seemed to drain away. “Look, Michel, I know you used to be a cop and a private investigator so it’s in your nature to poke your nose into things and try to fix them, but I’m asking you as a personal favor to please just let it be.” Another calming breath. “If the State Police suddenly come around, Dez and whoever he works for are going to assume we called them in. Seems to me we’re in a pretty okay situation right now. I want to keep it that way.”
“Okay situation? As the meth capital of Louisiana?”
Darlene stared at him steadily. “Maybe someone’s cooking meth out in the woods, maybe they’re not. In either case, they leave us alone. Dez and his boys keep us away from them and them away from us. The way I see it, that’s okay.” She chewed her lower lip for a moment, then tried a smile. “Besides, I imagine these sorts of folks don’t stay in one place for too long. Hopefully they’ll be gone before too long.”
“And you’re willing to wait them out?”
Darlene nodded decisively. “We don’t really have a choice, and in the meantime, they’re paying customers.” She started to turn away, then turned back and reached across the counter to squeeze Michel’s forearm. “I’m sure Verle thought he was doing the right thing when he didn’t renew those leases, but look what happened to the town.”
And she goes for the knockout, Michel thought, his respect notching up a few pegs.
Seven years after walking away from private investigating, Michel Doucette has settled into a comfortable routine of long lunches and volunteer work, but when an old friend asks him and his former partner, Sassy Jones, to look into possible thefts at the nursing home where she volunteers, Michel reluctantly agrees. What starts out as a seemingly straightforward case, however, suddenly takes an unexpected twist, and things soon turn deadly when a side trip to visit his father in the tiny Atchafalaya Basin town of Bayou Proche puts Michel in the crosshairs of a drug lord and the mercenaries protecting the operation in the swamps surrounding the town.Déja Vieux is the seventh novel featuring detectives Michel Doucette and Alexandra “Sassy” Jones.
The novel that began the Michel Doucette and Sassy Jones mysteries:
More about David Lennon
David Lennon lives in Kennebunk, ME, with his husband, Brian, and their dog, Blue. He is a five-time Lambda Literary Award finalist, and winner of the 2010 Lammy Award for Best Gay Mystery for his second novel, Echoes.