Page 221 of The New Iberia Blues (Dave Robicheaux 22)

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Then something happened that was perhaps coincidental, perhaps not. A large bubble of light seemed to surround us all. A tremendous black swell dipped under the cruiser and raised it atop a wave that tilted it at least thirty degrees. Maybe someone in the helicopter had shone a searchlight on us. Maybe a tidal surge from the Gulf was about to strike the coast. Or maybe the ghost of the pilot who’d nailed that Nazi sub wanted to score one more for the good guys.

Wexler was thrown off balance, the wheel spinning as he tried to get his weapon in Clete’s face. Clete crashed into him with his full weight, pressing him against the instrument panel. Wexler had his finger inside the trigger guard and was trying to push the barrel down on Clete’s feet to get off a crippling shot. Clete shoved my cut-down inside Wexler’s trousers.

“This is for Smiley Wimple and Hilary Bienville, asshole,” he said. He pulled the trigger.

The number of rents in the cloth left no doubt that the shell in the chamber had been loaded with buckshot. Wexler seemed to be looking straight at me when he realized what had just happened to him. His mouth was puckered like a guppy’s, his face shrinking as though it had been miniaturized, his voice locked in his throat as if no sound could adequately express what he was experiencing.

The Plexiglas-like bubble disappeared, and the cruiser settled against the dock, and the waves that had rocked it so violently turned to foam and trailed away in the darkness.

It’s funny how your anger goes away when you see a man die, even one who was demonically evil. I adjusted the boarding plank and walked onto the stern and picked up Alafair. I held her against me, and the heat in her body radiated through her clothes. I smelled her hair and the salt on her skin and felt her heart beating when I pressed my hands against her back. Her face was buried in my chest. She didn’t speak. She was the same five-year-old Salvadoran girl I had pulled from a submerged plane many years ago. The years between then and now meant absolutely nothing, and I knew that she was my little girl and I was her father and that was the way it would always be, and that Clete Purcel would remain our guardian angel forever, and that we would never change the world, but by the same token, the world would never change us.

Epilogue

NINE MONTHS LATER, the three of us rented a house on stilts just above Bodega Bay, where each evening the waves pounded against the cliffs and coral formations, and the sun left its light under the ocean long after it had disappeared from the sky. Alafair had sold her first film rights to a production company and had contracted to do the adaptation. While she worked at her computer and tried to let go of the deceit and violence and theft of trust that had been visited upon her, Clete and I tooled up and down Highway 1 in his Caddy, our saltwater rods and reels propped in the back seat, the wind cool and warm at the same time, while jeans-and-leather low-riders blasted past us and their badass girls smiled back at us, hair whipping in their faces.

Our wounds healed; our memories did not. Lou Wexler had hurt us in many ways. Oh, yes, the incubus had its origins in the abuse at the jail, but the real cluster of thorns was the suspicion and acrimony we had allowed Wexler to inculcate in us. We had come to distrust one another and lost faith in our institutions and ourselves. I had come to suspect Sean McClain and to quarrel with Helen Soileau and to doubt Bailey Ribbons, who had allowed me to go back in time and believe I could undo age and mortality and, in so doing, erase the mistakes I had made as a young man.

I would always love Bailey, but in a silent and protective way. When she invited Alafair and me to her and Desmond Cormier’s wedding out in Arizona, with the vastness of Monument Valley as the backdrop, I made an excuse and decided never to think again about the life I might have had. But the temptation to dream stays with me on a daily basis, not unlike the shimmer inside a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red or the glitter of gin cascading on the rocks.

As far as Desmond was concerned, I believe his dualistic obsession with light and darkness was about the struggle between good and evil. It is not coincidence that in My Darling Clementine, the light of oil lamps burns only in the brothels and saloons, while the rest of the desert is governed by darkness. I believe Desmond shut his eyes to Wexler’s crimes, including the murder of his half sister, and that his omission, like Butterworth’s, would one day lead him to a fatal discovery about himself and a garden he did not want to enter.

The greatest oddity in all of this is that I believe Desmond passed on to me his obsession with light and shadow. I cannot watch the sun course through the heavens and settle into a molten ball without feeling a weakness in my heart, as though God does slay Himself with every leaf that flies and that indeed there is no greater theft than that of time.

But like Wyatt Earp and Henry Fonda, I love the name Clementine. And I love the name Bailey Ribbons. And I love the names Alafair Robicheaux and Clete Purcel. And with those names in my heart, why should I ever fear what tomorrow might bring?

Just the other day, Clete and Alafair and I were at a street dance in Santa Rosa, and I thought about ending this tale with a line about going up the country with Canned Heat, with the martial connotations the allusion implies. Instead I decided it was time to heed other lyrics from other songs. The green republic is still out there, the wheat fields waving, the dust clouds blowing, our mountains and diamond deserts and Gulf Stream waters a votive gift that belongs to us all. And the men who break in and steal by night, who spread self-doubt and fear and acrimony, will eventually fall by the wayside and be unremembered ciphers that disappear like scraps of newspaper in our rearview mirror.

With this thought in mind, Clete and Alafair and I went to a wild celebration among thousands of revelers in downtown Santa Rosa, surrounded by hills that glowed in the sunset with a purple aura under a starry sky, Martha & the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” blaring from the loudspeakers.

And that’s the way our Manichean tale ends, on a summer night in the land of the free and the home of the brave, trapped between vineyards and the sea and the souls of migrants who come with dust and go with the wind, all of us twirling among young people who wore flowers in their hair, a church bell clanging without stop in a Spanish mission.

Roll on forever, Woody.


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