Twenty-five years ago the last adult members of the Labiche family to bear the name, a husband and a wife, filled themselves with whiskey and sleeping pills, tied plastic bags over their heads, and died in a parked car behind a Houston pickup bar. Both were procurers. Both had been federal witnesses against a New York crime family.
They left behind identical twin daughters, aged five years, named Letty and Passion Labiche.
The girls' eyes were blue, their hair the color of smoke, streaked with dark gold, as though it had been painted there with a brush. An aunt, who was addicted to morphine and claimed to be a traiture, or juju woman, was assigned guardianship by the state. Often Vachel Carmouche volunteered to baby-sit the girls, or walk them out to the road to wait for the Head Start bus that took them to the preschool program in New Iberia.
We did not give his attentions to the girls much thought. Perhaps good came out of bad, we told ourselves, and there was an area in Carmouche's soul that had not been disfigured by the deeds he performed with the machines he oiled and cleaned by hand and transported from jail to jail. Perhaps his kindness toward children was his attempt at redemption.
Besides, their welfare was the business of the state, wasn't it?
In fourth grade one of the twins, Passion, told her teacher of a recurrent nightmare and the pain she awoke with in the morning.
The teacher took Passion to Charity Hospital in Lafayette, but the physician said the abrasions could have been caused by the child playing on the seesaw in City Park.
When the girls were about twelve I saw them with Vachel Carmouche on a summer night out at Veazey's ice cream store on West Main. They wore identical checkered sundresses and different-colored ribbons in their hair. They sat in Carmouche's truck, close to the door, a lackluster deadness in their eyes, their mouths turned down at the corners, while he talked out the window to a black man in bib overalls.
"I've been patient with you, boy. You got the money you had coming. You calling me a liar?" he said.
"No, suh, I ain't doing that."
"Then good night to you," he said. When one of the girls said something, he popped her lightly on the cheek and started his truck.
I walked across the shell parking area and stood by his window.
"Excuse me, but what gives you the right to hit someone else's child in the face?" I asked.
"I think you misperceived what happened," he replied.
"Step out of your truck, please."
"My cotton-pickin' foot. You're out of your jurisdiction, Mr. Robicheaux. You got liquor on your breath, too."
He backed his truck out from under the oak trees and drove away.
I went to Provost's and drank for three hours at the bar and watched the pool games and the old men playing bouree and dominoes under the wood-bladed fans. The warm air smelled of talcum and dried perspiration and the green sawdust on the floor.
"Have any locals pulled in Vachel Carmouche?" I asked the bartender.
"Go home, Dave," he said.
I drove north along Bayou Teche to Carmouche's home. The house was dark, but next door the porch and living room lights were on at the Labiche house. I pulled into the Labiche driveway and walked across the yard toward the brick steps. The ground was sunken, moldy with pecan husks and dotted with palmettos, the white paint on the house stained with smoke from stubble fires in the cane fields. My face felt warm and dilated with alcohol, my ears humming with sound that had no origin.
Vachel Carmouche opened the front door and stepped out into the light. I could see the twins and the aunt peering out the door behind him.
"I think you're abusing those children," I said.
Excerpted from Purple Cane Road by James Lee Burke Copyright 2000 by James Lee Burke. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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