Van Morrison wails in the background. I am dancing with a beautiful woman. Her dark curly hair tickles my nose and smells like a summer beach day. Her body feels good against mine—soft, curvy, warm. My right arm encircles her, and my hand rests in the small of her back. I can feel the rise of her buttocks, and this excites me. I pull her to me a little more, and I feel her breasts push into my chest. My left hand holds her right hand, and I rest them against my left shoulder. I pull back and gaze into her face. Her dark eyes stare into mine, inviting me. Her breath smells like spearmint. I catch a faint smell of honeysuckle. I lean forward for a kiss. I am no longer in control.
"Stop," she says.
"Why?" I long for that kiss that I know will send me into nirvana, but she pushes me back.
"I said stop."
"Don't put on the brakes now. We're in high gear."
"What is that nun doing in your dream?"
"It's a blessed miracle. That's why," I say and pull her to me, but the song changes, and the dream dissipates.
Reluctantly, I opened my eyes and glanced at my bedside clock—9:32 A.M. I picked up my cell phone playing its "Brown-eyed Girl," ringtone and answered it.
"Hello," I said.
"Yeah, that's me." The voice was feminine and slightly familiar. "What can I do for you?"
"You're John LeGrand, the detective?"
"Yeah, that's me."
"I need you to find something out for me."
"Who am I talking to?"
"I'm sorry, Mr. LeGrand. I've never talked to a detective before. I'm a little nervous. My name is Linda Ledoux."
"Like Superman's women?"
"You know, initials L.L.—Lois Lane, Lana Lang, Lori Lemaris. Sorry, just woke up." My sense of humor seldom works with strangers. What can I do for you, Ms. Ledoux?"
"Linda. Maybe I could meet with you. Would noon be all right?"
"Noon would be perfect, Linda. Do you have my office address?"
"Yes, I do. I'll be there at noon."
I went back to bed and tried to recapture my dream, but it was not to be. The voice of Linda Ledoux kept creeping back into my consciousness. It was so familiar, and yet, I could not conjure up a face for the voice or the name.
The doorbell rang promptly at noon. I opened the door, and my knees buckled. I had to hold on to the door to keep myself up.
"Are you all right, Mr. LeGrand?"
She was the girl of my dream—dark eyes, curly hair, and I caught a whiff of a summer beach day.
"Uh, yeah, I'm okay. It's just you look exactly like somebody I know."
She smiled revealing even white teeth. Obviously, she didn't smoke or drink coffee or tea. I led her to my office connected to the foyer. The area that included my office wasn't particularly large, but I kept it uncluttered. A floor to ceiling bookshelf stood next to the foyer doorway. Most of the books were on crime and old pulp books I picked up at garage sales. A file cabinet sat against the wall behind me within easy reach of my desk chair. A rickety chair sat across from my beat up cherry desk—I found both at the Salvation Army Store—and provided a sitting space for my clients. The poster hanging next to the bookshelf was a George Rodrique of Ernest Gaines, a writer I heard read once, in Lafayette. Both Rodriquez' and Gaines' signatures adorn it. The work hanging on the right of the window overlooking the street and my neighbor's live oak tree was a framed woodcut on rice paper by David Alpha, a Lafayette artist. The woodcut portrayed a red snake biting his tail. In the background is a red palmetto leaf. The rest of the room, about twenty feet, served as my living room. It contained a couch, a television, an overstuffed chair, and several photographs: one of a cat, Puddy; another of a horse, DiableNoir; and one of a black lab, Chien. All of them, pets of mine when I was a young boy. The living room area ended at the arch leading to my kitchen and the bedroom hallway.
Linda Ledoux took the chair I offered her and sat. She wore jeans, and when she crossed her legs, I got a view of a nice ankle. I shook my head a little and tried to focus on her story.
"What can I do for you, Ms. Ledoux?"
"Linda. I'll have to tell a little about myself first.'
"I'm from Ellisonville. Ten years ago, I had just turned sixteen, I found out I was pregnant. The father, a seventeen year old farm boy, decided he was not the fathering kind and refused to own up to the pregnancy." She frowned, and I had the feeling that this was not an easy task for her. "Sorry," she said. "I'm not very good at revealing myself like this."
"Take your time."
"Thank you. You see, I had a reputation. I was a little wild. I smoked some pot, drank some, and I partied hard. I was a teenager, and I did have the reputation of being loose. I have to tell you, though, that farm boy was the only one with whom I ever let my guard down. Of course, he turned out to be a bastard." Again, she paused and frowned.
"Can I get you something to drink? I have bottled water and a couple of sodas in the refrigerator."
"Water would be nice."
I left her with her thoughts for a few minutes and grabbed a couple of water bottles out of the refrigerator. When I returned, she seemed composed again and ready to continue her story.
"When the stomach started to show, I left school. My parents were disgusted with me, but I had an aunt, who sympathized and took me in. I had the baby in Ellison General and gave him up for adoption. Right away."
"You had a boy?"
"Yes. I didn't even look at him." She unscrewed the cap off the bottle and took a long swig. "I'm sorry," she said. "I thought I would be able to handle this better."
"Take your time. There's no reason to rush any of this." I was wondering where this was leading, however.
"A nurse took him away immediately after I birthed him. After I left the hospital, I didn't go back to school. I jumped on a bus, made my way to New Orleans, and got a job in a nightclub. I'm not bad looking." If only she knew. "I made good money there, but I got tired of fighting off the men who only wanted to get in my pants. After about a year, I quit, took the money I'd saved, and went to school. I got my GED and attended a beauty school. After a few months, I got my certification and moved back to Ellisonville." She paused. "I know you don't need to know all this, but it makes it easier for me to tell it."
"Go ahead," I said. "You've got my complete attention."
"Remember that beauty shop they had on the Southside? It was called, Curlin' Iron." I nodded although I had no clue. "It had been closed down for a good while, close to a year, so I got it for a pretty good deal. I found two or three other beauticians in the area who were dissatisfied with where they were working, and I invited them to join me. Before long, I had a thriving business. I'm doing real well for myself now, which brings me to why I'm here." She took another swig from the water bottle. "My life has been a mess. Yes, I have a successful business. I can afford just about anything I want, but there's something missing from my life—like a piece of me is missing. I read somewhere that some amputees can't cope with the fact that their legs are gone. They can get around fine, but they wonder where the legs are." She looked me straight in the eyes. "Is it rotten yet? Did they freeze it, and is it still alive somewhere? Questions like that. That's how I feel about my son. I function all right during the day, but at night, when the lights go off, and I have to be alone with my mind, I wonder." I saw the tears well up in her eyes and slide down her cheeks. "He is ten years old, would have been ten years old, two days ago. He's my missing body part. Do you understand that?"
"You want me to find your son."
"Yes, I want you to find my son. I have to know that if I'm going to live any kind of decent life. I just have to know."
I pushed a box of tissues in her direction.
"You understand there are reasons why adoption agencies don't want parents who gave their kids up for adoption to find them?"
"Yes, I understand, and it makes all kinds of sense to me, but I have to know."
"It wouldn't be easy, and I'm not even sure, it's possible. Your son could be in Alaska right now or a foreign country somewhere."
"I understand that you might not succeed, Mr. LeGrand. Would you be willing to try, though?"
"Call me John. Mr. LeGrand doesn't sound right." Reason told me to drop the case. Tell her that it was impossible and go on with my life, but something else waylaid reason and told me that if I didn't try, I would never see her again. She would stand, walk out that door, and disappear. I didn't want that. I wanted to finish my dream.
"I'll give it a try," I said, and her face lit up in a wide smile. "There are no guarantees. You understand that?"
"I understand, Mr. LeGrand, I mean John."
"I charge two hundred dollars a day plus expenses. If expenses go over fifty dollars, I call and clear it with you, if I can. Circumstances sometimes preclude that."
"That's great with me."
"I require two hundred and fifty dollars in advance. That's for one day's work and fifty dollars expenses."
She reached into her purse and pulled two one hundred dollar bills and a fifty. She handed them to me.
"One more thing, Linda. When and if I find your son, you have to promise me, you will not approach him. Without that promise, I will not even try. The boy might be in a great situation, and your intervention might destroy a wonderful life he might have."
"I have thought about all that, John, and I promise you that I will not approach him."
"Now, let me get some specifics from you."
She didn't have too many details. She had the baby at Ellisonville General and allowed a nurse to give him away to a representative of the adoptive agency, but she didn't know who that was. No one talked to her about the child after she had it.
After she left, I booted up my computer and did a little research on adoption. I went to the Louisiana Department of Social Services Web page and found out that there was an Adoption Registry for contact between voluntary adoptees. I wondered if she placed her name on the list. I would have to ask her about it. My research told me that there were two possibilities for adoption in Ellisonville—Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Adoption Services and The Office of Community Services with the nearest regional office in Lafayette. A sixteen year old probably would have gone with the church. Of course, there might have been other possibilities such as arrangements ahead of time, adoption agencies outside of the parish. The Internet offered a young girl many options.
My first stop would have to be the hospital.
Ellison Parish Regional Hospital—The General to the layman—was the only hospital in the parish. If someone became sick or was pregnant, this is where they came. Ellisonville Junior College had one of the largest nursing programs in the area and trained most of the nurses working at the hospital. I knew several of them from teaching at the college because of my job as a part time instructor there. Often, some of the students who went into nursing took one of my criminal investigation classes as an elective. The hospital kept all its records in a computer now. If a doctor or an investigator needed information about a patient, he went to the computer. Doctors usually kept the medical information that they scribbled on the chart in a folder, but transcriptionists transferred all of that to a computer. Luckily, for me, I knew a medical transcriptionist. Eileen Morrison was an old girlfriend of mine. She was a little weird, but she was good and important to me right now. She had access to the medical records at Ellisonville General.
I gave her a call.
"John LeGrand. I haven't heard from you in at least three months. Where've you been?"
"Bullshit. A detective in Ellisonville is not busy—ever."
"Touché. Now that we got that all cleared up, can we talk?"
"I figured you needed something from me. What is it? Need a date to the detective ball?"
"No, I don't need a date, but you would be the first one I'd ask if I did."
"Flattery will get you all the way, Mr. LeGrand."
I smiled. Eileen had a way with words all right.
"I need some information on a former patient of EG."
"You know I can't give out that information, John. Shame on you for even asking."
"Ten years ago, she gave up her kid for adoption. All I want to know is who the adoption agency was.
"I'm sorry, John, but I could lose my job if I gave out that kind of information."
"The hospital would never fire you, Eileen. You're much too valuable. Do me a favor. Look up the patient and read her file. I'll ask you a question. You don't have to answer. I'll figure it out on my own. That way, you won't have given me an answer."
"Come on, John. The very fact that I looked up the patient's file will point straight to me. You know that. You can't access these things without leaving some sort of trail."
"All right, Eileen. I don't want to get you in trouble. Forget I asked."
She went silent. I waited her out. I heard a Chihuahua bark in the background. Where was she? Surely, the hospital didn't allow dogs. I decided not to ask.
"I'm sorry, John. I just can't afford that kind of trouble."
"No problem. I'll call you soon, and this time I won't be asking for anything except some of your excellent company."
"Sure you will, John."
She hung up, and I searched my mind for another way to get the information I needed. Then it occurred to me that I simply did not ask Eileen the right question. I dialed her number again.
"So soon, John. I'm impressed and slightly overwhelmed."
"Ha, ha. I realized after I hung up that I asked you the wrong question. The right question is, 'What adoption agency does the hospital use most when dealing with adoption cases?'"
"That question I can answer safely: Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Adoption Services."
"What, you got a hot case? Let me guess. Some woman gave up her child and now, I suppose she wants to find the kid. She feels as if she's missing something. A body part, maybe?"
"That's right, Eileen except she was a sixteen year old girl. How did you know that?"
"I'm a woman too, in case you haven't noticed."
"Oh, I've noticed. Plenty of times."
"I've seen lots of stuff like that. Girl gets pregnant. Girl gives birth. Girl too young to be tied down, so she gives the baby up. Years later, the woman wonders what it could have been like. She wonders what the baby turned out to be. It's all too damn familiar—too damn predictable, John. Sad too."
"One more thing, Eileen."
"Why am I hearing a dog?"
"That was my cell phone ring tone. Isn't it cute?"
"Yeah," I said. "Real cute."
Our Lady of Mercy was the largest church in the parish. They ran the Our Lady of Mercy School, which consistently won first place in sports and academics in their division. It was very popular, and parents from three or four parishes over, sent their kids to be educated or to play sports there. The slogan was, "Our lady gives no mercy," and that was certainly true when it came not only to sports and academics, but to the pocket book, too. Our Lady of Mercy was a very expensive school.
The church was also involved with adoption. They took children of adoption age, usually infants, and placed them in good Christian homes. Of course, they tried to find Catholic homes, but any Christian home would do. They screened prospective parents very carefully. They could not drink or smoke. They had to have at least a high school education, and they had to be church going Christians.
The church was involved with other social projects in the community. For example, they worked with the department of social services to find low cost housing for needy Catholics in the parish. Our Lady had also become involved in the politics of the parish, politicking for what they considered worthy Catholic candidates.
The church was located near the school on the northern outskirts of the town. It was a huge brick building modeled after the Basilica di San Pietro in Vatican City, according to the brass sign located near the front door. Of course, it was not nearly as big as the basilica, but it was impressive enough. I followed the sidewalk circling the structure and walked to an office building behind it. I strode into an air-conditioned waiting room and spoke to a nun sitting behind a counter. She was polite—asked me my name, the nature of my business, and told me to wait for Sister Mary Elizabeth. Musak, mostly liturgical, played from hidden speakers in the ceiling. After a few minutes, a tall, severe-looking nun walked up to me.
"Yes, ma'am," I said. She was almost as tall as I was.
"Would you follow me, please?" I did as she told me. She led me down a hallway to a small office located at the back of the building. She indicated a chair, and I sat. She sat across a desk from me.
"What can I do for you, Mr. LeGrand?"
"Ten years ago a young girl gave birth to a boy and gave him up for adoption. The sister at Our Lady of Mercy handled the adoption." Okay, I lied to a nun, but only a small lie. I was reasonably sure that they handled the case. Surely, I would not go to hell for that.
"Let me finish your story for you, Mr. LeGrand. She is ten years older now, and she is wondering about what she gave up."
"Yes, ma'am. That's basically it. I'm wondering if there is some way, voluntarily on everybody's part, of course, that we could find out where the boy is, so she can see how he turned out."
She shook her head before I even finished my statement.
"There is no way, Mr. LeGrand. We placed the boy in a good home to Christian parents. He may or may not know that he was adopted, but in any case, meeting his birth mother could be very traumatic. Remember, she abandoned him. It would be very difficult if not impossible for a ten-year-old boy to understand all the complex reasons behind her decision ten years ago."
"Perhaps we would not have to make the boy aware of his birth mother. Just let her see how well the situation turned out. It surely would ease the apprehensions the mother feels."
"We cannot take the chance, Mr. LeGrand. Suppose the mother decides that she has to let the boy know who she is. We would not be able to prevent her."
"So the answer is absolutely not?"
"The answer is absolutely not, Mr. LeGrand. We have never made an exception before, and we will not in this instance either. I sympathize with the birth mother. It must be very disturbing knowing that someone, who was once part of you, is alive out there. Of course, she wants to know that her decision ten years ago was the right one. Believe me, it was. We do everything in our power to provide a secure home for our adoptees."
I stood up, and she stood with me.
"When this woman made a decision to put up her child for adoption, she was a child herself. Can children make these decisions and be held accountable? I understand that you want to protect the child, but who protected the mother when she made that decision? Did you or someone from your church counsel her—helped her make the decision?"
"We do everything in our power, Mr. LeGrand, to make sure that the child is taken care of. I sympathize with the mother, but two mistakes has never made things right. She made a mistake, and the result was impregnation. She brought an unwanted child into this world. It would be a mistake to expose him to a mother he has never known."
I shook her hand.
"Thank you," I said and left.
I called Linda and asked her if she would have dinner with me. I used the old pretext of having to update her. She agreed and asked me to pick her up at the beauty salon.
Linda was gorgeous. She had tied her hair back a little exposing more of her neck. She wore a simple string of pearls and a simple black tee shirt tucked into faded jeans. I jumped out of my old van and opened the passenger door for her.
"As a chariot, it leaves a lot to be desired, but I've been having this Dodge Ram van for fifteen years now, and we're enjoying growing old together."
She climbed up into the passenger seat.
"Oh," she said, surprised. "It's like sitting on top of the world."
"Amen, sister. And that's why this vehicle and I get along so well together. It's like sitting on top of the world." She laughed, and I shut the door and made my way around to the driver's side. "Have you ever been to Ally's before?" I asked once I slid into the driver's seat.
"Uh, huh. Ally's Restaurant. She is African American, and she can cook like nobody's business. A few years ago, she was in an accident. Some bad guys tried to kill her boyfriend, a deputy with the Sheriff's Department, but they got her instead. She lost the use of her legs."
"What a sad story."
"You would think so, but you don't know her. She never skipped a beat. She got out of the hospital and immediately set to work realizing her dream of owning a restaurant. She opened up Ally's and it's been a success ever since. It is known statewide. I'm surprised you never heard of it. 'Sixty Minutes' did a story on it about a year ago."
She shook her head.
"I don't eat out much. I'm afraid I'm a pretty boring person. I work, go home, and go to work again. I'm trying to realize a dream myself."
"You look pretty successful to me."
I pulled into Ally's parking lot and escorted her to the front door. A young woman dressed in black and white asked me if I had made an appointment. I hadn't, and she ushered us to a table near the back of the restaurant.
"No, no, no, Elspeth. That's John LeGrand. We do not give him a table near the bathroom." It was Ally, rolling her wheel chair toward us.
"Ally," I said and gave her a peck on the cheek.
"John. I haven't seen you in at least two weeks. Have you learned to cook or something? Maybe you found someone who can cook for you?" She looked up at Linda.
"Don't look at me," Linda complained. "I have trouble cooking toast."
"Ally" I said. "This is Linda Ledoux."
"Hi, honey. I've been trying to get this man married off for ages. He's so picky, I don't know if he'll ever find someone."
We both laughed nervously over that one. I ordered a bottle of wine, and we sipped wine and talked before dinner arrived.
"You said you had a report to give me, Mr. LeGrand."
"It's not much of one, but I did check you out at the hospital. Yes, you had a baby boy and yes, he was given up for adoption."
"You do good work, Mr. LeGrand—oh, wait, didn't I tell you all that?"
She was not only good-looking. She was sharp too.
"All right, you can be sarcastic if you want. I'm reasonably sure the Our Lady of Mercy nuns handled the adoption. You probably signed a paper giving up custody of the child, or your parents might have signed such a document, I guess."
"I don't remember signing anything, but I vaguely remember there being a nun in the birthing room. I thought she was one of the nurses."
"Yeah, they're Johnny on the spot. Anyway, I talked to Sister Mary Elizabeth, and she said, 'absolutely not'—I could not have access to any information on your son. Apparently, it's company policy, but we pretty much knew that, didn't we?"
"Yes, I guess we did. That's not very encouraging news, John. Is there anything else you can do?"
"A cop, a detective with the Louisiana State Police, told me once that problems were like diamonds—every time you turn it a little, you get a different reflection. I've never forgotten that. If you're going to solve a problem, you have to look at it from every angle. I looked at your problem from the hospital angle and didn't see anything useful. I looked at it from the nun's point of view and didn't find anything useful, so now, I need to look at it from another point of view."
"What's left, John?"
"Lots. For example, I could examine it from your point of view, from the boy's point of view or from the adoptive parents' point of view. That's just for starters."
"So which one is it going to be?"
"I think I need to give the adoptive parents a chance to tell me something."
"But you don't know who they are."
"Well, you're right, but I know what they are. They're parents and parents have many things in common."
Linda shook her head.
"You're amazing." Then the food came, and we did very little talking. With Ally's food, you eat, and you savor the flavor. You don't waste time talking.
I dropped her off at the beauty salon, but before she slid into her car, I kissed her. It wasn't exactly the dream kiss I envisioned, but it would do for starters. She seemed a little surprised, but she didn't stop me.
"What was that for?" she asked.
"Something I've wanted to do since before I met you. Let's just say I'm finishing a dream."
"You baffle me, John LeGrand."
The main Ellisonville library was located on a side street in a Victorian house once owned by an obscenely rich old woman who donated it to the city designating it as a library in her will. Mrs. Miller, who many people believed was older than the building, sat behind the checkout counter and gave me a hard look over her reading glasses.
I hated to do it, but I needed her help, so I walked to the counter.
"Mr. LeGrand," she said in her raspy voice. "What can we do for you?"
"I need to scan some articles from the Ellisonville Gazette, Mrs. Miller, from about ten years ago."
"You have three options." She pulled off her reading glasses and looked me in the eyes. Her eyes were surprisingly clear and blue, for her age. "You might be able to find a paper copy at the newspaper office, but ten years is a long time, and paper tends not to hold up that long. Your second option is to use our microfiche." I wasn't familiar with microfiche, and she must have read my thoughts. "Microfiche is simply a picture of the newspaper on a grid system that you manipulate to the page and article you want." That sounded a bit time consuming.
"What's my third option, Mrs. Miller?"
"Your third option is to utilize the newspaper's data base online. You type in a search word and a date, and it takes you to the all the articles with the search string in that date."
"That sounds like the one for me. How do I access this data base?"
She shuffled from behind the checkout counter and led me to a computer station. She actually pulled out a chair for me to sit in.
"You simply click on the Ellisonville Gazette icon, and it will take you to a search page. Then you type in your search string, and the computer screen will reveal a series of linked sites. They're arranged in descending order—the ones that are closest to your string will be on top."
"Thank you, Mrs. Miller. You've been very helpful."
"That's my job, Mr. LeGrand," she said and shuffled back.
I typed in "baby announcements" for ten years earlier on the day that Linda had her child. Then on second thought, I copied down the names of all the parents of children born in that week. I was counting on parents being parents whether they were adoptive parents or birth parents. There were no births listed on that day, so I sucked in my pride and trucked over to Mrs. Miller.
"What is it now, Mr. LeGrand?"
"I'm looking for a birth that occurred ten years ago on a specific day, but none are listed in the newspaper."
"Was it a Sunday?"
"No, ma'am. The day listed on the paper was a Tuesday."
"The Gazette only lists births and marriages on Sundays in their Family Section."
"Oh, I never read that section."
"Obviously not." She did not grin when she said this.
I trudged on back to the computer and looked up the Sunday paper for that week. There were five listings with pictures. Most of the mothers were in their early twenties, it seemed. Two of them looked slightly older. There were two other listings but without pictures. All of the entries were worded the same except for one. The common wording went along those lines: John and Jane Doucet of Ellisonville announce the birth of their daughter Beverly Ann Doucet on June 27, 1999 at 5 p.m. at Ellison Parish Regional Hospital. The one worded differently went like this: Robert and Judy Vidrine of Ellisonville announce the arrival of their son Allen Vidrine. The difference was minimal at most, but at least it was a clue.
The picture was a grainy black and white of a young couple in their thirties, I guessed, sitting shoulder to shoulder staring at an infant in the crook of the mother's arms. The age was right. The date was right. I decided to go with my gut instinct on this one.
I typed in Robert Vidrine's name in the database and got more hits than could fit on one page. Apparently, there were many Robert Vidrines in Ellison Parish. I went back to the birth announcement to see if I could find something that would cut down on the number of hits. There was nothing else, but I had a face and a name, so I started clicking on links one by one. On the fifteenth article I found, the new father's face stared back at me. It was a picture of a group of Lids & More workers at a company party. Robert stood third from the left. The article stated that the Lids & More factory had opened two years before the boy was born. The factory made lids for plastic containers. The article was dated April 21, 2001. I typed in Robert Vidrine's name this time with Lids & More and got five hits. The most interesting one was where he'd been promoted and transferred to their offices in Lafayette. Apparently, Robert had moved on up to management. Now, I needed to go to Lafayette. This was where I would start burning Linda's expense money. I hoped that my luck would hold, and I would find my man, if he was my man, quickly.
I didn't tell Linda where I was going. I left a message on her cell phone telling her that the search was taking me out of town, and I would be back as soon as possible.
The Lids & More office was down a little tree-lined street off Verot School Road. I parked in the parking lot and entered the front door. A secretary seated at a desk greeted me.
"Can I help you?" she asked, pleasantly.
"Yes, I'd like to speak with Mr. Robert Vidrine."
"Can I ask you what it's in reference to?"
I knew that companies liked to screen their visitors, but I had hoped a company as small as Lids & More might not. I was wrong.
"I believe I might have dinged his car out in the parking lot. Do you know if he owns a red Mercedes?"
"She smiled—almost laughed. Oh no, Mr. Vidrine drives a much more conservative car. He drives a dark colored Cadillac."
"Really? Is it one of those newer models with the taillights inside the taillights? I just don't like the looks of them."
This time she did laugh.
"Mr. Vidrine's car is a classic with the tail fins and everything. It's his baby."
"I'm sorry for having taken your time."
"Mr. Beaufort drives the red Mercedes. He's busy right now with a customer. Maybe you'd like to leave your name and number?"
"Yeah, that's a good idea. My name is John Fontenot, and here's my phone number." I wrote the first numbers that came into my head on a notepad and handed it to her.
She smiled and thanked me.
It was no problem at all finding Robert Vidrine's Cad. There was nothing even close to it in the parking lot. I parked my '87 Dodge Ram Van on the far edge of the lot and waited. I didn't have to wait long. At twelve noon, Robert Vidrine, looking very professional in a dark suit, walked up to the car and unlocked it. Hello, Mr. Robert Vidrine. He backed out of the space and drove out. I followed him. He took Verot School Road to Pinhook, stopped at a fast food place, and drove to Broussard, just south of Lafayette. He pulled into a quiet neighborhood and parked at a two-story plantation style house. I was figuring by now that Lids & More paid their executives well. I slid my van in front of a house that looked empty. I wouldn't be able to stay inconspicuous for long. My van simply did not match the neighborhood. If I was going to do any surveillance, it would have to be in a rental car.
Robert Vidrine climbed out of his Cad carrying a bag of fast food with him and Judy Vidrine, a nice looking blonde-haired woman, met him at the front door. She looked to be about in her mid-forties. Robert looked to be in his mid to late forties. They pecked and entered the house together. The kid was probably at school. I needed a picture of him, but I couldn't just walk up to the front door and ask for a picture. I couldn't waylay the kid either and take a picture. The cops would probably throw me in jail as a degenerate. I left the Vidrine's neighborhood and drove to a car rental place I had seen on Pinhook. I picked out a nondescript Chevrolet and paid the man for a one-day rental. He gave me the keys and one of his business cards. I thanked him and drove to the first copy shop I could find. The rental car dealer had given me an idea.
The woman at Bud's Copy Palace could not understand why I only needed one sheet of business cards, but she helped me anyway.
"What do you want on it?" She asked, after I told her that I was in Lafayette for a job interview, and I had forgotten to bring my cards.
"I want my name on it," I said. "John LeGrand." Normally, I would have used an alias, but I was afraid Mrs. Vidrine might ask for identification. Parents were very touchy when it came to their kids, and I wanted to be prepared for anything she might throw at me. "Under that, place my title, Executive for Advertising. Then add the name of the company: World Marketing Systems Inc., 2425 S. Foible Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90071. Do you think you could find a clip art or something of a movie camera and place it on the right side of the card?"
"What color do you want the font, Mr. LeGrand?"
"Is silver possible?"
It was. She used silver for the font and a metallic blue color for the camera clip art. Overall, it looked very professional. I left there completely satisfied.
I drove to the public library and used one of their computers to get online. I found a list of talent agents and printed it. I stopped at an office shop, picked up a fifty-cent folder, and placed the list in it.
I bought a fast food sandwich and drove to the Vidrine neighborhood. I parked about four or five houses down from the Vidrine's place and monitored the action there in my rearview mirror. The Cadillac was no longer in the driveway. At about two forty five P.M., Mrs. Vidrine backed a blue Mazda out of the garage and headed north on the street. I assumed she was going to get the kid, so I didn't follow her. Thirty minutes later, she pulled into the garage and closed it. I still didn't see the kid, so I had to assume she had him with her. I would give them about a half hour to settle down. Then I would swing into action.
At four o'clock, I drove around the block and parked in front of the Vidrine house. I grabbed my digital camera and walked up to their front door. The woman showed up a few seconds after I rang the doorbell. She eyed me suspiciously and checked out my car over my shoulder. The car seemed to satisfy her.
"Can I help you?" It was a nice voice. I could only just detect the slight nasal twang that I usually associate with the Cajun dialect.
"Yes, ma'am," I said trying very hard to get rid of my Cajun twang. "My name is John LeGrand with World Marketing Systems Inc."
"If you're trying to sell something," she said cutting me off. "I'm not interested in the least bit."
"No, ma'am," I said quickly. "I'm not selling anything. If you'd give me just one minute of your time, I'll explain why I'm here."
"Go ahead," she said and smiled. "You've got one minute." She glanced at her watch.
I offered her one of my cards, and she glanced at it while I tried to explain why I was standing on her front stoop.
"I'm with World Marketing Systems Inc., Mrs. Vidrine. I'm the executive in charge of advertising. What that means is I find people to appear in our commercials and ads that we place worldwide. We're based in California, but executives like me will often work certain areas of the United States, depending on our needs." I paused for a moment to see if she had any questions.
"Go on," she said. "You have fifteen seconds left."
"Your son's name was given to us as a possible fit for one of our commercials. All I need is to talk to the two of you for five minutes, and to take a picture of him if you are comfortable with that. If not, I can send a camera crew out here in a month or so to take a few shots of him. Of course, that would delay everything, but I am aware of how sensitive all of this is."
"Okay," she said. "Times up. What do you need to know from me?"
"Has your son done any acting in the past?"
"Oh, no. None at all."
"Then I take it he doesn't have an agent, yet?"
"No, we don't."
"Ma'am, this is a list of talent agents. You are quite welcomed to go online and check them out. We suggest that if we decide to use your child in our commercials, you seek the services of one of them."
"Thank you." She took the folder from me and opened it. I was certain I had her hooked. "There are quite a few of them in here."
"Yes, ma'am. We want you to be absolutely sure that World Marketing is above board."
"Come in," she said and held the door opened for me.
"Thank you," I said and entered.
She led me to a living room couch and indicated that I should sit. The boy was on the floor watching a cartoon. He glanced over his shoulder at me, but paid me no other attention.
"Who recommended our son to your organization, Mr. LeGrand?"
"I have no idea, ma'am. We will, that is, World Marketing will, send out a questionnaire, usually to public and private school teachers, art, drama, and literature teachers mostly, asking them to recommend one of their students as possible actors for our commercials and ads. When we get one, we try to follow up, which is what I'm doing." I smiled at her.
"Probably Mrs. Aucoin, his drama teacher." She nodded. "I'll bet it was her."
"I don't know ma'am. The company does not provide us with that information."
"You said you need a picture of my son?"
"Yes, ma'am. If it makes you feel more comfortable, you can pose in the picture with him." I figured I could always edit her out of the shot later. "Some parents are reluctant to let their children pose alone for a stranger."
"Well, you certainly look legitimate enough." She paused. "I'm a little embarrassed to ask, but could you show me an id?"
"Why, of course, ma'am. Would my Louisiana driver's license suffice?"
"Yes, of course." I handed her the license, and she read it carefully. When I saw the little worry frown start to form on her brow, I decided I needed to explain why I had a Louisiana license. I reached for the card, and she handed it to me.
"I've been in Louisiana for close to a year now, ma'am. I procured a Louisiana driver's license because it makes things so much easier, especially when I use my credit cards. You'd be surprised how many of these Cajuns, will not accept my California license. I'll be in Louisiana at least another three of four months, so as you can see, it is worth the effort to pick up a license here."
"Yes, of course." She turned to the boy. "Billy," she said, and the boy looked over his shoulder at her. "This man would like to take a picture of you."
"Aw, Mom. What for?"
"It can wait for a commercial if that would make things easier."
"It just might," she said to me and then turned to the boy. "His company is thinking about putting you in one of their commercials."
He sat up.
"Uh, huh," I said. "It's not a guarantee, of course. We need a picture of you, and if the executives in California think you're a good match for our present batch of commercials, they'll call your mom."
"You gonna take a picture of me right here?"
"How about we place you against a blank wall. That way there'll be nothing to distract from the picture. I found an empty wall in their hallway and stood him against it. Then I took the picture. I tried to imagine this as Linda's child, but he looked nothing like her. His hair was straight and blond, his skin was ruddy, and he had blue eyes. After I was done with the picture, he returned to his cartoon, and Mrs. Vidrine led me to the front door.
"Thank you so much, Mrs. Vidrine, for letting me into your home. I will send this picture off to my company as soon as I get to my motel; however, I have to tell you, they are notoriously slow. It might be weeks before you hear anything from them, so you'll need to be patient."
"I will be, Mr. LeGrand, and thank you very much."
I was a little worried that if she didn't hear from the company, she might involve the police. Scams were common place, and this was definitely a scam, but all she had was a fake card with a fake address and telephone number. Of course, my name was on it, but I doubted that the Lafayette police would think to look in Ellisonville for a John LeGrand. If they did, I would just deny it, and they would figure it was just coincidence that the scammer chose my name to place on the card. After all, no self-respecting criminal would use his own name and give it to his victim.
I climbed into my rental car, picked up my van, and drove back to Ellisonville that evening. I knew that Linda would want me to call her right away, but I didn't. I had some very hard choices to make. First off, I wasn't positive that this was her kid. That worried me a little. However, assuming it was, I had to decide what to say if she wanted to see the boy in the flesh or even meet with him. After seeing the boy in his environment, I had come to see things much like Sister Mary Elizabeth saw them. The boy was happy, comfortable, and probably not aware of his birth mother. Introducing the two would only confuse him or maybe even worse. I was taking a chance just showing her the picture.
I called her the next morning at the beauty shop.
"Can you take a break? I have something to show you."
"I'll be right there."
Ten minutes later, she parked in my driveway and knocked on my door.
"Come into my office," I said and led her there. I sat down at my desk and slid the printed picture of her child across the desk. She picked up the picture and stared at it. The tears rolled down her cheeks.
"He looks just like his father," she said in a choked voice. "He was handsome, too."
She laid the picture in her lap and focused on me.
"I want to see him in the flesh, John?"
I knew this was coming, and I dreaded giving her my answer.
"I can't let you do that, Linda?"
"I hired you to find my child for me. Where is he?"
"I found him, Linda, but I can't let you know where he is."
"Damn it, John. You have too. I paid you."
"If you remember, you promised that you would not meet with the child or try to see him in person. I'll give you every penny back if you want, but I am not going to tell you where he is. He's happy. He has two loving parents who are taking excellent care of him."
"I won't talk to him, John. I just want to see him in the flesh."
"No, Linda. You wouldn't be able to stop yourself. Seeing you and finding out about you could completely upset his world. You wouldn't want to do that to him."
"Please, John. Please. This…" She nodded at the picture, "just makes the pain worse. Please tell me where he is."
"You don't know how sorry I am, Linda, but I can't. You'll just have to wait another ten years when he's an adult and maybe then, you two can get acquainted. You'll still be a young woman."
"Ten years is an eternity, and you know it. I can't wait another eternity to find my missing body part. Please John. I'm begging you."
I hung my head.
"I can't," I whispered.
"May you rot in hell," she spat and walked out.
I sat at my desk for a long time. I should never have taken the case. It was obvious from the very beginning that it was a lose/lose situation. If I refused to take the case, I would never have gotten to know my dream girl. If I took the case, I would never be able to kiss her again. I slammed my desk drawer shut and grabbed a beer from my refrigerator. It was going to be a long night.
She stands on the dance floor and moves seductively to the slow beat. Her lips move, but I can't hear what she is saying over the loud music. She holds her arms out to me, and I walk forward parting the sea of dancers before me, but I can't seem to reach her. Whenever I get close to her, she moves back, and I have to fight the dancers again. The music stops, and I can hear what she is saying. "Kiss me," she says repeatedly. "I can't," I complain. I reach for her, but she turns into the ten-year-old boy she gave up, and he's crying, the tears rolling down his cheeks. "I'll never know my momma," he cries. "I'm sorry," I cry also. "I'm so sorry." The music starts again, and the beat is frenzied and the dancers knock me back until I can no longer see the boy. Sister Mary Elizabeth appears before me and does the Boogaloo. She laughs at me and shouts over the music, "It's hell to do the right thing, isn't it?"
I woke up to wet sheets and my digital radio blaring Eddie Floyd's "Knock on Wood." I turned the alarm off and got up to face a gray, empty day. I suspected it would be a while before the sun shone again.