"You're an object of pity and ridicule, Mr. Robicheaux," he replied.
"Step out here in the yard."
His face was shadowed, his body haloed with humidity in the light behind him.
"I'm armed," he said when I approached him.
I struck his face with my open hand, his whiskers scraping like grit against my skin, his mouth streaking my palm with his saliva.
He touched his upper lip, which had broken against his overbite, and looked at the blood on his fingers.
"You come here with vomit on your breath and stink in your clothes and judge me?" he said. "You sit in the Red Hat House and watch while I put men to death, then condemn me because I try to care for orphan children? You're a hypocrite, Mr. Robicheaux. Be gone, sir."
He went inside and closed the door behind him and turned off the porch light. My face felt small and tight, like the skin on an apple, in the heated darkness.
I returned to New Orleans and my problems with pari-mutuel windows and a dark-haired, milk-skinned wife from Martinique who went home with men from the Garden District while I was passed out in a houseboat on Lake Pontchartrain, the downdraft of U.S. Army helicopters flattening a plain of elephant grass in my dreams.
I heard stories about the Labiche girls: their troubles with narcotics; the bikers and college boys and sexual adventurers who drifted in and out of their lives; their minor roles in a movie that was shot outside Lafayette; the R&B record Letty cut in prison that made the charts for two or three weeks.
When I bottomed out I often included the girls in my prayers and regretted deeply that I had been a drunk when perhaps I could have made a difference in their lives. Once I dreamed of them cowering in a bed, waiting for a man's footsteps outside their door and a hand that would quietly twist the knob in the jamb. But in daylight I convinced myself that my failure was only a small contributing factor in the tragedy of their lives, that my guilty feelings were simply another symptom of alcoholic grandiosity.
Vachel Carmouche's undoing came aborning from his long-suppressed desire for publicity and recognition. On a vacation in Australia he was interviewed by a television journalist about his vocation as a state executioner.
Carmouche sneered at his victims.
"They try to act macho when they come into the room. But I can see the sheen of fear in their eyes," he said.
He lamented the fact that electrocution was an inadequate punishment for the type of men he had put to death.
"It's too quick. They should suffer. Just like the people they killed," he said.
The journalist was too numb to ask a follow-up question.
The tape was picked up by the BBC, then aired in the United States. Vachel Carmouche lost his job. His sin lay not in his deeds but in his visibility.
He boarded up his house and disappeared for many years, where to, we never knew. Then he returned one spring evening eight years ago, pried the plywood off his windows, and hacked the weeds out of his yard with a sickle while the radio played on his gallery and a pork roast smoked on his barbecue pit. A black girl of about twelve sat on the edge of the gallery, her bare feet in the dust, idly turning the crank on an ice cream maker.
After sunset he went inside and ate dinner at his kitchen table, a bottle of refrigerated wine uncapped by his plate. A hand tapped on the back door, and he rose from his chair and pushed open the screen.
A moment later he was crawling across the linoleum while a mattock tore into his spine and rib cage, his neck and scalp, exposing vertebrae, piercing kidneys and lungs, blinding him in one eye.
Letty Labiche was arrested naked in her backyard, where she was burning a robe and work shoes in a trash barrel and washing Vachel Carmouche's blood off her body and out of her hair with a garden hose.
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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