IT RAINED THE NEXT MORNING, steamy relentless rain that made the inside of the rental car damp and sticky despite the air-conditioner. We went from the Hyatt Regency in urban New Orleans to the cabin in rural south Louisiana, a sort of cultural leap that sat better with Angel than it did with me. By the time we got there, the truck was gone, but the old Nova was still parked where it had been the night before.
There were neighbors close to this cabin; lots facing the bayou were as valuable as waterfront property anywhere, especially since most of the people along this stretch of road apparently made their living giving tourists swamp tours. On the other hand, since tourists were common, we didn't stick out as obviously as we might have. A tiny souvenir shop sitting cheek-by-jowl with a boat tour departure site was already open. The man inside, dressed in camouflage greens and browns, his rough black hair in tousled waves, looked like a refugee from a Rambo movie. Angel put on some lipstick and slid from the car. "He's more my type," she told me. "I'll see what I can find out." The rain had settled down to a very light drizzle.
She'd left her elastic band off this morning, and her blond hair fluffed prettily around her narrow face. In a pair of tight jeans, a sleeveless T-shirt, and sneakers, she could stop traffic if she chose, and this morning, she did choose. She sauntered up to the service window of the little shack, rested her elbows on the sill, and within a minute was deep in conversation with the dark-haired man, whose white teeth flashed in a constant grin. Angel was smiling, shrugging, tossing back her hair, and in general behaving atypically. But it seemed to be quite effective. When she started back to the car, she turned around several times to call back, as he extended the conversation. "Whoo," she said in relief, as she slid into her seat. "Talk about Cajun! He had an accent so thick you could cut it, and could charm the birds from the trees, too."
"What did he say?"
"I told him this long story... I'd met this guy in a bar last night, and I didn't know his name, but he had this really distinctive truck and lived somewhere right about here. And then I said I'd lost the napkin with his name and phone number, but I was trying to track him down before he called me, because I suspected he was married. And I wanted to know for sure before I went out with him."
"This guy in the souvenir booth wanted me to forget about the man I'd met last night and go out with him instead, but I told him I'd promised the man I'd meet him tonight, though I'd shove him off if he was married." Angel made a circular sweep with her hand to indicate how long this badinage had taken her. "What it all boils down to - the ax-man is renting this cabin, has been for a couple of years now. No one owns a house along this road that isn't Cajun, by the way, because of some law that the houses go to family members and no one ever sells, but this particular house, the only son is in the Army right now and just wants someone to live in it until he comes back from his tour of duty - or something like that."
"Did you get a name?"
"The name is apparently Dumont, or something like that. He works at the lumber yard not five minutes from here. And he is married; or at least there's a woman in residence, and Rene said he's heard she's pretty ferocious. He advised me to keep clear."
"I don't know what to do now," I observed, after we'd looked at each for a moment or two. "Why would a man named Dumont attack us with an ax? Why is he the rent collector for Alicia Manigault? Where is she? She can't be dead, if she appears for a few weeks each year and crams herself into that house with the Colemans and the dog."
"And what does it all have to do with the bodies on the roof of your house, as long as we're asking questions?" Angel added. "All I know to do is ask someone who might know the answer."
I thought long and hard to find a way around that, but it did seem as if that was the only way to do it. At least the ax-man was gone, and maybe we could find out something in his absence that would explain his attack on us. What we were going to do about it once we discovered the reason, I hadn't the faintest notion.
"Someone comes running at me with an ax, I want to know why," Angel said. She was looking at me sideways, sensing my hesitation. This was a point of pride for Angel.
"Let's go knock on the door," I said.
We reconnoitered briefly. There were no cars at the houses on either side of the cabin. We looked at each other and shrugged.
I pulled boldly into the driveway. I was driving, with Angel crouched on the floorboards. I parked as close as possible behind the old car, so the passenger door was not as visible from the front window. As soon as I'd gone inside with the woman, providing as much distraction as possible, Angel was to slip from the car and snake around back. There were enough bushes in the yard to provide cover. If the air-conditioner wasn't already on, maybe there'd be a window open so Angel could hear if I got into trouble.
This was pretty close to having no plan at all. My palms were sweating as I got out of the rental car. It was still raining enough to keep the tourists away, and the Bayou Cajun Boat Tour place across the road was deserted. I clamped my purse under one arm as if it were a friend, and I marched up to the cabin, creaked across the screened-in porch, and rang the doorbell.
I was prepared for the woman who answered the door to be tough, perhaps cheap-looking and foul-mouthed. Though very nervous, I was braced. But I was not ready for the door to be answered by a dead woman.
"Yes?" said Charity Julius.
She thought much more quickly than I, no doubt about it. The expression on my face and the gasp I gave left no doubt in her mind that she was recognized. She didn't know who the hell I was, but she knew I recognized her.
About the time Angel was gliding around the side of the house on her way to the back, Charity Julius punched me in the stomach hard enough to double me over, and while I was bent, she brought her clenched fists down in a vicious blow to the back of my neck. By the time Angel was at the kitchen window listening, Charity Julius was dragging me to the bedroom and locking me into a closet where I suppose the owner ordinarily kept his guns; it was equipped with a very high outside padlock. At about the moment Angel began to be concerned at not hearing my voice, Charity was calling the ax-man at his job, and he was tearing home in his flashy truck.
I was sore but conscious in the dark closet, which seemed to be full of hard, lumpy things. I hauled myself to my feet, slowly and reluctantly, and waved my hand around above my head. I was rewarded with the feel of the string of the closet light. I gave it a tug, and looked around me in the sudden glare. There were out-of-season clothes pushed to one side, and the other was occupied with fishing gear. The floor was covered with boots, from lace-up steel-toe leather ones to thigh-high waders.
I hoped Angel would come soon, but something might have happened to her, too. I had better find a weapon of some kind. The fishing poles refused to break into a usable length until I found an old bamboo one. With some effort, I shortened it to about a yard. The thick end was quite heavy, and I thought that if I had room to swing it, I could cause some harm.
"What are you doing in there?" Charity Julius asked from the other side of the door. It seemed prudent not to answer.
"We're going to take care of you, whoever you are," she said raggedly. "No one's found us in all this time, and we'll get the money in four more months. We haven't waited all these years for nothing."
I leaned against the door. "Who's on the roof instead of you?" I asked. I was too curious not to.
"They found them?" It was Charity's turn to be shocked. "Oh, no," she said, so quietly I could barely catch the words.
I wondered why Mrs. Totino hadn't called her granddaughter. She had to know Charity was alive; her live-in lover's presence in the life of Alicia Manigault proved that. So why hadn't Charity known?
I shifted uncomfortably in the cramped space. What was taking Angel so long? A glance at my watch said fifteen minutes had crawled by. I had a feeling things weren't going my way when I heard the male voice outside. "Harley! She's in the closet," Charity Julius said, and another piece dropped into place. Harley Dimmoch only wanted his family to call at a certain time because then he, and not Charity, could be sure to answer the phone. He didn't let them come visit without lots of notice because she would have to stay somewhere else.
"Let's see who it is," he was saying, and then I had only the quick rattle of the key in the lock to warn me. I raised the fishing rod and launched myself out of the closet, which almost got me shot dead. The young dark-haired man was holding a no-nonsense revolver in his hands, and at my appearance he fired. Fortunately for me, the fishing rod caught him in the stomach and the shot went high, but at least it settled matters for Angel, who came through the unlocked back door like gangbusters.
The small bedroom was full of shouting, moving bodies, and the fear of the gun. Charity was so busy trying to grab me that she missed Angel's appearance until Angel justified all her martial-arts training by kicking Charity in the side of the knee, a decisive move, since Charity shrieked and folded instantly, and thereafter lay on the floor moaning.
Harley Dimmoch had grabbed my arm with his free hand and was trying to aim the gun with the other when Charity shrieked. He saw her go down, and I watched his face twist with desperation. He had begun to swing his arm to fire at Angel when she seized it, twisted his wrist clockwise with a curiously delicate grip of her fingers, slid closer to him and under his arm, and then with his arm twisted and extended in what must have been an excruciatingly painful position, kicked one leg out from under him and kept on raising his arm while he was falling until his shoulder dislocated - or perhaps his arm broke. He screamed and fainted.
The gun was lying on the floor beside his useless arm. With the end of the fishing rod, I poked it into the closet where I'd been imprisoned and shut the door. Angel and I looked at each other and panted and grinned. "Idiot," she said, "if the gun hadn't gone off, I'd still be out there wondering what was happening."
"Idiot," I said, "if you'd known he'd come home, you could have jumped him out in the driveway and then he wouldn't have had a chance to pull a gun on me." "What the hell happened to you? I didn't hear a thing after I got around back!" "She punched me in the stomach and then the neck," I explained, pointing to the young woman clutching her knee on the floor. "That's Charity Julius." For one second Angel's face reflected the shock I'd felt.
"So the ax-man," she said, "must be Harley Dimmoch?"
Charity tried to get up, gripping one of the cheap pine night tables, but she collapsed back on the floor with a white face and sobs of pain. I was far from wanting to comfort her, and she would have been glad if I'd been in her place, but still, I felt uncomfortable, to say the least. Angel left the room for a minute and reappeared with some heavy, silvery duct tape and a pair of scissors. She used the tape efficiently on Harley Dimmoch's ankles and Charity Julius's wrists. I held Charity up while Angel worked, shrinking from touching her but having to.
The gunshot had attracted no attention, apparently. No one pulled up, or called, or knocked on the door. We three women gradually calmed down. Charity regained control of herself. Her wide dark eyes stared at us assessingly. "What now?" she asked.
"We're thinking," Angel answered. I was glad she had. I had no idea what would come next. But obeying an irresistible impulse, I leaned forward and looked into her face and asked, "Who is the third body?"
She closed her eyes for a minute. She must be twenty-one now; she looked older.
"My grandmother," she said.
"Then who is the woman living in Lawrenceton?"
"My great-aunt, Alicia."
"Tell me," I said intently. "Tell me what happened that day." Finally, finally, first among all the people who had wondered, I would be the one who knew. It was almost like being the only one to discover Jack the Ripper's true identity, or getting the opportunity to be a fly on the wall on a hot, hot day in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1892.
"My aunt was visiting. She was staying over in Grandmother's apartment with Grandmother."
"How did she get there?"
"She came by bus. My dad picked her up in Atlanta. She had been there three days."
"How come nobody knew?"
"Who was to know? Who was to care? We didn't have many visitors, mostly because Mom was so sick. I didn't talk about it at school. Why would I? And Daddy had been working on the roof for three days, trying to get it finished. Going to pick her up was a pain in the butt, an interruption, but since Mother and Grandmother wanted her to be there, he did it.
"Harley had come to visit me and to help Daddy. I said I was sick and stayed home from school. I don't think they believed me, but they knew how much I missed Harley and they were willing to give me a little slack." Her face was flinty when she said this. She was willing herself not to feel, as she'd been willing herself not to for all these years. "Harley - lady, do you think he's okay? He looks awful bad; you should call an ambulance." She had asked Angel, not me.
"He's okay. He's breathing," Angel said with apparent unconcern. But I noticed she was taking his pulse when Charity looked away. "Harley was up on the roof with Daddy, hammering away. It was the day the patio was going to be poured; they'd spent the morning building the form. Daddy just insisted Harley help him, and Harley didn't really mind, but he had come to see me, and he was going to have to go back home without having talked to me very much. Daddy just didn't seem to understand, it was like when we lived close to Harley and Harley would help Daddy all the time, but then we could go out on a date and be away from them. But up on the roof, Daddy starts this heavy churchy stuff, about how Harley was going to have to stop drinking and learn how to control his temper if he was going to marry me, which was what Harley and I wanted. And he reminded Harley, all this Bible stuff, about keeping his hands off me until we were married, was what it boiled down to." She sighed deeply, shifted to try to make herself more comfortable. "Listen, can't you get me a pillow, or something?"
Angel got a pillow from the bed and eased it under Charity's shoulders. Charity was as striking as the newspaper picture had suggested, but even stronger looking, with the large dark eyes and the jawline giving her face character. What kind of character, I was finding out.
"So," she resumed, "Harley decides that up on the roof with my dad is a good time and place to tell him we've already slept together." She rolled her eyes, the very portrait of an exasperated teenager. Silly old Harley. "My dad went nuts. He was yelling and screaming and swinging his hammer around, and said Harley had to leave and not see me anymore. Harley got scared and mad, and he swung his hammer, and it hit my dad in the head, and he died. Right up there on the roof."
I closed my eyes.
"Then Harley climbed down and told me. Mama had been over visiting with Grandmama and Alicia in the apartment, and she hadn't heard anything." Her face twisted with pain, and I felt another pang of guilt. What were we going to do with these people? But she rallied and plowed on, and I could tell she was feeling a certain degree of relief in the telling. "I knew that Mama would tell. And Harley would go to jail. I'd never see him again. So I told Harley to go back up on the roof, and when Mama came back I told her to go up to the bedroom, lean out the window, Daddy and Harley had something they wanted her to see. So when she leaned out the window, Harley hit her, too." She must have read something in my face, because she said, "Mama was really sick, anyway, she was going to die."
And no traces of the murders had been found in the house, because they had actually taken place on the roof.
"What about your grandmother?" Angel said.
"Well, I knew she would tell about Mama," Charity said pettishly. "It just seemed to grow and grow. I'd always felt closer to Alicia, anyway. Me and Harley couldn't think of what to do, so I told Great-aunt Alicia what had happened. She and my grandmother had never gotten along good, and sharing that house in Metairie had just made it worse. They had hardly any money, and they didn't have many friends, and she had forged Grandmother's name before, once or twice, and not gotten caught. She said people couldn't tell old women apart anyway. What she told us to do - she thought about the money right away - she said we might as well get it and have a life, rather than going to jail, that Mama and Daddy wouldn't have wanted me to go to jail. So she called Grandmama, and told her Mama was up in her bedroom and was feeling very bad, and Grandmama hurried up those stairs, and when she was in the bedroom looking around, I sort of wrapped my arms around her and stuck her head out the window, and Harley... took care of her."
My stomach lurched.
I would just as soon not have heard more, but by then I couldn't have stopped her.
"We sat down in the kitchen and talked. Harley was kind of crazy by that time. We couldn't decide what to do with the bodies, or what to tell Mr. Engle, who was coming to pour the concrete in two hours. Then we thought... just leave them where they are. Harley said we should cover them with lime, that's what his dad did when the family dog died and they didn't want other animals coming in the yard to dig at the grave. And up on the roof, we'd get turkey buzzards if we didn't do it ... so he went into Atlanta and bought the lime and a gray tarp ... he had gotten some blood on his clothes so he borrowed some of my daddy's. Harley got back and fixed them up on the roof, and then he waited. "Alicia had realized by then that no one knew she was there, so she could pretend to be Grandmama. And she said if I put on Mama's wig, Mr. Engel wouldn't know from a distance it wasn't Mama. And he had to see me as me, too. We'd just tell him Daddy had had to go off on an errand. So Harley drove the truck around behind the garage and hid it while Mr. Engle was there, and I went out and talked to him, and then I ran upstairs and put on Mama's Sunday wig, because she was wearing the other one." For a second the toughness cracked in Charity Julius's face and I could see the horror underneath. "And I went and rattled round in the kitchen so Mr. Engle could see me, and Alicia pretended to be Grandmama."
I had wondered all along why Hope Julius had been wearing her Sunday wig when Parnell had seen her working in her kitchen, yet it had been on the wig stand when Sally had been shown through the house the next day. And I had seen the everyday wig, its synthetic hair fluttering in the breeze on the roof. "How did you vanish?" I asked.
"It was my great-aunt who realized I had to. We sat down that night and figured it out. Harley had to go home like nothing was wrong. I had washed and dried his clothes by then, and he put them back on and we just put the ones of Daddy's he'd been wearing in a garbage bag ... Harley's hairs might be on them or something. And I got in the car with him, not taking hardly anything of mine, just one change of clothes, because Alicia said it had to look like I'd just been taken without notice. I put Mama's wig back on the wig form; my hair was enough like Mama's that I didn't figure it would matter if they found one of my hairs in it. Then Harley, on his way back home, dropped me off at a bus station. I had the key to the house in Metairie. We used all the cash Mama had in her purse to buy the ticket."
"The police checked all the bus stations within a reasonable radius," I said. "I wore an old pair of Mama's glasses, and I put a pillow in my front like I was pregnant," Charity said rather proudly. "That about knocked Harley over, he really laughed."
For the first time, I met Angel's eyes. She was looking as sick as I felt. I had completely lost my taste for this insider information. But she went on talking, though Harley was now stirring and moaning. She'd stayed in the Metairie house for a couple of days, eating only what was in the pantry and not going outside. On the third night, she'd slipped out of the house very late, gone to a pay phone at a convenience store a few blocks away, and called her great-aunt, asking her to get a message to Harley. Harley's parents might question a young woman calling their house. Harley could join her as soon as the investigation died down, maybe in a month, they figured. "I couldn't stay in the house that long, someone would see me, I knew," Charity said. "I was going crazy."
I was willing to bet that was true: shut in a house, forced to remain invisible, with her last memories of her family closed in that house with her. "So what did you do?"
"Aunt Alicia cashed one of my grandmother's checks and snuck out and mailed it to General Delivery, Metairie, and after I picked it up, I went to New Orleans and rented a room and found a job. I'd never done any of that before." She sounded rather proud. "I gave them Harley's name and Social Security number. I figured girls could be named Harley, too. And it was a real Social Security number. I had it written in my billfold. I knew everything about Harley." "And he came down when he figured it was safe?" Angel wanted to cut this true confession short. She (and Harley) were shifting restlessly. "And got a job at the lumber place. And then we rented this cabin. And here we've been for all this time. Until you found us. Who the hell are you two?" "I own the Julius house," I said.
"Oh, you're the one Alicia called about. The one Harley was supposed to get rid of. The one who was asking so many questions, with too much time on her hands." I could have done without Angel's cocked eyebrow. "But he said he screwed it up. And he was too scared, being back in that area where someone might recognize him, to try again. He was so mad... . Listen, I'll bet you don't care, but really I'm in awful pain." "Why didn't your great-aunt just sell her house and drop the phone number?" It was the last question I really wanted an answer to. "She and grandmother both had to be there for a house closing; they owned it jointly. And if Alicia cut off the phone, where was she supposed to be? People did call her from time to time ... and she had to get her mail somehow. So she got the idea of renting it to that tub of lard, her cousin's daughter, so she could get some money to live on till the estate was probated... four months! We almost made it!"
And her confessional mood changed suddenly to hatred, all directed at me. She actually managed to heave herself at me, despite the broken knee, despite bound hands. I found myself wondering if it were true that Harley had wielded the hammer in all three murders.
"I've had a thought," Angel said, unmoved by Charity's desperation. "If the forensic anthropologist examined those bones the day after you found them, he knew that one skeleton wasn't Charity. He must have told them it was an old woman. So who are the police going to question first?" "The woman they think is Mrs. Totino."
"Right. So why hasn't she called down here to warn these two? Why didn't she tell them the bodies had been found?"
I could tell from Charity's face she was asking herself the same thing. I was regretting not calling Sally Allison. I would have known so much more. I could have called the police anonymously, if I had figured out Charity Julius was alive; I wouldn't have been so shocked by a confrontation with a woman I thought was dead these past six years. And now we wouldn't be in the strange fix we were in now.
"They've got her in custody, or they're watching her so closely she thinks they're tapping her phone calls," I said. "I bet she never called these two from her own phone anyway."
"Think Alicia will break?"
"I bet she will. Not because she's fragile, but because she'll want company, someone to blame the actual murders on. Yeah . , . once they actually question her identity, she can't keep up the pretense that she's Melba Totino, at least not for long."
"This is going to be awfully hard to explain," Angel commented.
That was an understatement.
"I have to go to a hospital," said Harley clearly. He was badly hurt, and so was Charity, and damned if I knew what to do with them.
"Shelby's not gonna like it if I get arrested for assault," Angel said. I hardly thought Martin would enjoy my arrest either.
"Here's what we're gonna do," Angel told her two white-faced victims. "We're gonna leave, and we'll call the police from a pay phone." "What fucking good is that going to do us?" Harley asked. "For one thing, you ungrateful moron, they'll take you to the hospital. Now, I'd like to point out that we could just leave you here to rot, or we could kill you, and I guarantee no one would miss you."
I turned away so the two killers couldn't see the shock on my face.
"We'll tell them you did this," Charity spat. "You'll do jail time." "No I won't, and I'll tell you why," Angel said calmly. "Because we're not gonna tell the police about Harley trying to kill us. And we're both alive to tell about it, and positively identify him, too. But the minute you tell the cops about us, we tell them about you. At least this way you'll only stand trial on some old charges, with no evidence left to collect or eyewitnesses." It wasn't much, but it was something, and in the end they agreed. What choice did they have? We wiped my fingerprints off the fishing rod and anything else I might have touched in the closet, and Angel, I saw with some amazement, was wearing plastic gloves. I was feeling uncomfortably like a criminal myself. They didn't ask why we hadn't told the police about Harley's first attack, thank goodness.
We left the house and didn't speak to each other until after we'd stopped at the next convenience store. Angel was driving again, and she parked rather over to one side so the rental car wasn't readily visible from the clerk's counter. She got out and used the phone. I waited numbly, slumped in my seat. We negotiated the rest of the drive still in the same silence. When we were once more in our Hyatt room, light-years away from the cabin by the bayou, Angel said she was very hungry, and I realized I was, too. Wastefully, we ordered room service, and while we waited for our food, we took turns in the shower and changing clothes as though we could wash away the morning. I was depressed and tired and it was just noon. Angel, on the contrary, seemed to have a blaze of triumph about her. For her, I thought, the morning had been a vindication. She had protected my life successfully and proved her worth, her effectiveness. But that triumph was offset by watching the suffering of the nasty couple from whom she'd rescued me; she wasn't cold enough to be indifferent. When our food came, we were ravenous. "Think they'll tell?" Angel asked as we swapped bites of our desserts.
"Don't know," I said. "It's a toss-up. Let's go home."
"Good idea. I'll call the airline after I finish this cake."
Within an hour we were on our way to the airport.