THE DELILAH CASE
Little Niqui didn’t stop to catch her breath or fasten her shoe buckles. She knew the cracks and fissures in the sidewalks by heart, avoided them and ran as fast as she could. Past the quickly disappearing smear of faces. Past the arranged tableau of her childhood. The usual folk estivating like reptiles in the heat. Sipping iced teas on their porches. Endlessly fanning themselves with old newspapers. She never saw them.
But they always noticed her.
Especially today. The seven-year-old bolted up her front stairs and tore open the screen door with so much force that it snapped back against the window shutters like a heavy magnet and stayed there, letting in a spume of dust and all of the buzzing flies. Old men, weary women with small children, pre-teens whose parents didn’t own fans, all gaped in astonishment because only once before had the little girl attempted anything so brash and bold.
Where was the fire? And what about Darnell, the block wondered. Why in heaven’s name was she keeping him waiting?
Little Niqui flew into the dining room right before dropping to her knees and crawling under the table. When she found what she was looking for, the girl repeated her steps backward and was out in the street before the cone of dust had a chance to settle back to earth. The object of her quest, the new present from Miss Marta, safely swaddled in the crook of her arm.
The six-inch, brand new voodoo doll wore a tuxedo and top hat. Gede’s hands were splayed in gleaming white gloves, and dark sunglasses with one lens missing hung rakishly on his head. A short fat stubby cigar poked out of the twisted mouth, and a carved wooden cane dangled from his right forearm. He looked drunk and lascivious, but this deity, the voodoo lwa, was the one you called when there was a serious illness in the family, and he loved the little children whom he defended against the seen and unseen.
Little Niqui was already halfway to Treasure House to play with Darnell when she realized she’d forgotten her protector. She had to run extra hard and extra fast because she knew full well that this mistake would cost her three-and-a-half minutes of play. One-and-a-half minutes back home, a half-minute for the retrieval, and another one-and-a-half minutes back to the place where she first noticed the doll missing.
Little Niqui never wore a watch, never looked at clocks, was terrified of them because everything in her life was scheduled—her mama Nadine, always making sure of that. Instead, she used her internal guides to tell time just the way Miss Marta taught her. She taught her that once you understood them, the spirits would always be there for her.
Nadine didn’t approve of that kind of thinking, but what could she do? Miss Marta was her voodoo priestess, too.
Once again the skinny girl with legs like a gazelle was running past the neighborhood, a little less frightened now, and a lot more aware of her surroundings. She smiled and waved to the people talking all at once at her.
“You forget something Little Niqui?”
“Gonna catch your death running in the heat.”
“Slow down girl, you hear.”
“Careful or you’ll wear your out your shoes.”
“Ummmhmm! Brand new patent leather Sunday shoes.”
“Don’t let your mama catch you.”
“I have thirty minutes.”
“Not no more you don’t.”
“Show us whatch ya hidin’ under that arm.”
“Better hurry, Darnell be waiting on you.”
Darnell. Her everything. Her one true friend. She was truly sorry to be late. Three-and-half-minutes late. Darnell would say he didn’t mind. That was how a true friend acted. Not like that crazy Delilah who would have screamed at her for one silly mistake. You never knew about Delilah, because as much she said she could be counted on, the older girl sometimes wouldn’t come around for days, even weeks. And then, you’d have to be afraid of what kind of mood she’d be showing. Once in a great while Delilah could be a peach. That’s when she brought them fun games to play and didn’t even get too cranky when she lost. That’s why she was invited back. But lately Delilah only made Little Niqui feel real bad about herself, even worse than before she showed up.
Her mama never mentioned Delilah, but she made her feelings very clear about Darnell. He wasn’t smart enough or good enough. In her estimation, just another neighborhood runt. Still, Nadine believed if left to his own devices, that boy had the power to unravel all the good plans she had carved out for her daughter’s future. Hadn’t he already discarded her proper title of Dominique, for that low class nickname, Little Niqui? As if her perfect angel needed street cred. No, everyone knew that the prodigious child’s destiny was to grow up and make a great impact on this ‘ole world. Nadine would have to stay cautious. Ummmhmm!
If you had bothered to ask Little Niqui’s opinion, she would have told you that her mama was jealous. Maybe Mama knew she loved Darnell as much as her. Maybe Mama knew that Darnell could keep her safe in a way she couldn’t. Maybe Mama knew if she died, Little Niqui would be very sad. But if Darnell died, Little Niqui would die, too.
She might die anyway. More than usual, things were rocketing right out of proportion. Clutching Gede to her chest, the girl tried to squeeze out the memories of the day. It ranked among the worst. And it was happening again. She’d begun detesting every single thing she was forced to do.
That morning she woke up like every day, an hour earlier than the other children on the block, and was chauffeured to a private Jesuit school in the upscale suburb of Metarie. The first half of the day was spent in European-style classes for fourth graders—thanks to her mama’s wheedling she had skipped second and third grade altogether. In the morning she studied her primaries: mathematics, English, history, geography, religion. Then after lunch she was passed from nun to nun, for individual tutoring in eclectic areas such as Picasso’s Blue Period, or the discoveries of the Italian Renaissance. At three-o’clock she took a French vocabulary test and passed it with flying colors.
Little Niqui had the reading comprehension of a tenth grader, and the I.Q. of the current reigning Mensa champion. She could sing opera, play three instruments, compose music, recite a dozen sonnets, and on occasion, fix her mama’s sewing machine and the old electric toaster when they went on the fritz.
When she thought things couldn’t get any worse, after her last class, Little Niqui was summoned to the principal’s office. He explained that because of her greater than expected academic progress that year, she would be spending the summer undertaking accelerated classes with a group of equally talented, although slightly older children on the French Riviera. The principal beamed, saying it would be for the whole summer. Astonished to see a look of sheer terror cross those big bright eyes, he quickly added that her mama would be going too. And that’s when she burst into tears and ran into the bathroom to throw up her lunch.
They had a deal!
You didn’t break deals, or go back on your word. Even if you were Nadine Doucette. Last winter after they took Darnell away from her, with only Delilah to witness it, Little Niqui jumped off her second-story veranda onto the brick courtyard below. And although she hadn’t broken a bone, an examining doctor at Charity Hospital who was no shrink, but could recognize a suicide attempt when he saw one, reported the incident to the resident psychiatrist. A group of specialists was brought in, and soon after a conclave convened between the hospital and Dominique’s school, and between Nadine and the Black Panthers.
One of the first things the latter group did after they had taken over the neighborhood was become Little Niqui’s personal benefactor. Indeed, they supplied the cash for the expensive matriculation, after-school lessons, and of course the car and driver. They bought Little Niqui’s mother a new stove and refrigerator, and when she asked for it, paid for the repairs to her porch and steps, and replaced the shutters on the front windows.
The senior members of New Orleans’s Black Power movement were also Little Niqui’s neighborhood appointed child advocates. They had a big say in what happened next.
So it was settled that she would continue all of her schoolwork and activities. She would keep curfew and go to church and Bible study on Sundays. The tiny precocious child also promised no more shenanigans like jumping off porches, or cutting—the ER doctor had also found a half dozen tiny unhealed slits alongside older scars on the back of her neck, mostly covered by her long pony tail.
In return, much to Nadine’s chagrin, her daughter would be allowed to play with Darnell for thirty minutes each day after supper. No more, no less, and as much as Little Niqui wanted on weekends, as long as there were no special events planned.
That was the deal.
Instinctively, Dominique knew this new life plan was different, that it would do no good to complain to Barry Beales, the leader of the Panthers, because most likely he was financing the trip. She would just have to find a way to bring along her best friend. Otherwise, how would she ever survive the summer?
Darnell sat on the top step carefully unwrapping a piece of chewing gum. Little Niqui watched him for a moment before taking the piece and popping it into her mouth. She never tired of looking at his face, briefly wondering why some of her mama’s friends thought Darnell didn’t quite ‘fit in’. Almost the darkest kid on the block, nine-year-old Darnell had been born with European features, a short skinny nose, thin lips and steel-blue eyes. His jet-black hair fell in waves slightly over his ears, and unlike Little Niqui’s, it was natural and not processed. To her he was the cutest creature she’d ever laid eyes on and she prayed he would always belong to her.
“Come on, let’s play.” Darnell clambered up the steps and tore into the house. Little Niqui ran after him chortling, trying to catch up. She followed the narrow hallway and ran past three rooms until she found him in the kitchen. Darnell heroically ducked and feinted her grabs by running under the square metal table. When she finally tagged him, he fell into an exaggerated heap on the cracked linoleum floor and pretended to be dead. The girl pulled and tore at his sleeve. She laughed so hard she fell down, too. Then like a miniature twister she shot up and screamed: “Catch me if you can!”
The two kids always continued this exchange, in and out of the rooms for fifteen minutes. The house was laid out much like the rest of the shotgun houses on the block: three rooms with an unbroken hallway connecting them. But this one had the camel back edition, where a second bedroom had been built upstairs. It belonged to Davina and Dave Treasure, who a month ago up and left to take care of their ailing daughter near Vicksburg, leaving the keys with their next-door neighbors, the Jacksons.
Once when Larry Jackson went to check on the house, he found the back door slightly ajar and that’s when he discovered Darnell and Little Niqui jouncing through the front rooms. From that time on he unlocked the back door at five minutes to seven and came back promptly to lock up at seven-thirty-five. If it so happened that his wife made cherry Kool-Aid that day, he filled two glasses and left them on the kitchen table where the kids would be sure to find them.
Their final ritual, to run up the stairs and jump up and down on the old feather bed had to be cut short today, but they still managed to get in a game of who-could-jump-farthest-off-the-bed. It was when Little Niqui cleared her friend by almost a foot and rolled to her side, that Gede fell from her pocket and landed on the floor. Darnell swiveled his body and grabbed the doll.
“This new? When did you get it?”
“Yesterday from Miss Marta.”
“But you already got one.”
“This one’s better.” Little Niqui took back the saucy patron of young children, sat up and balanced him on her knees. The children studied the cockeyed face staring at them.
“Why do you need better?”
“You know.” Little Niqui twisted her mouth. “I’m getting scared. All the time now.”
Darnell turned away to look out the dormer window. The glass was melting. He could feel Delilah’s heat all around. “It’ll be okay,” he said knowing it wouldn’t be. “I’m here. Don’t you worry.”
“Look at me Darnell.” Little Niqui’s eyes were wide trying to contain a flood of rushing tears. “Look at me.”
“Don’t cry. I don’t like that crying.”
“I’m sorry. Darnell. Darnell.”
When he looked back at her his smile was warm. Darnell couldn’t bear to see his friend sad. “You have five minutes, then we gotta go.” Darnell did own a watch, his own present from Barry Beales.
“You won’t ever leave me, will you Darnell?”
“You know I won’t.” And then looking very serious in the manner of a grown up, he asked, “Have you seen her yet?”
“No, but she’ll be by soon.”
Their evenings always ended with Darnell patiently reciting every article of whatever Little Niqui made him promise. He put up with it, because it seemed to make her feel better. Secretly he wondered why she bothered at all with the ritual when she already knew the ending to the story.
It most certainly wouldn’t be him leaving her.
August 13, 2005
Sheriff Leroy Futrell drove with the radio off.
Sporting the usual dark shades and Stetson, the sixty-year-old lawman guided the skinny wheel of his black and pink 1955 Ford Fairlane Crown Victoria along the endless banks of lime-green sugar stalks. He liked to scan all the old relics: nineteenth century farm houses, tractors as big as dinosaurs, and humanity’s surviving hoary remnants—old men smelling of cigarettes and coffee, playing dominoes in the shade of their dirt-packed yards.
Sheriff Leroy Futrell surveyed the countryside around Elysian Fields Parish like he owned it. Until a month ago, he did.
Because a month ago, Dr. Dominique Doucette hadn’t yet arrived in his parish to mess things up. A month ago, he was respected and listened to.
If things had stayed that way, she’d still be alive, and he’d still have peace of mind. More importantly, in a few hours the community would not have to watch their quaint villages get trampled by the march of news reporters and cameramen from all around Louisiana and the planet.
The sleepy little parish of Elysian Fields used to be clean, orderly and mostly law-abiding. On weekends Futrell and his posse responded to a half-dozen drunken disorderly complaints, and occasionally surprised teenaged joy riders with their first speeding tickets. Now and again, the sheriff had to issue a DUI, and once or twice a year, raid a marijuana field. Violent crime was almost nonexistent here, its proximity to New Orleans notwithstanding. In the twenty-five years that Futrell guarded and corralled his citizenry, there had been three killings, two domestics and one unfortunate hunting accident involving a five-year-old boy. Now they would have to add two more to the roll.
The one, they were still calling a homicide.
He didn’t blame Dominique. Or himself. He put the onus squarely on hubris and his lunatic childhood friend, Governor Jedediah (Spike) Jefferson.
The governor never thought twice about using someone else to elevate his esteem among constituents, or finding new ways to fatten his bank account. It seemed it was his fate, or his doom, to be the only state chief in the country to invite Dr. Dominique Doucette and her newest experimental project—a reform prison for killers—to Louisiana.
Specifically, the invite bore the return address of the sheriff’s own back yard, Elysian Fields proper.
The possibility of untold tax revenues from the untested scheme was by itself a delicious temptation. But good old Spike also liked to live fancy and in the headlines. He had willingly signed on the dotted line because he envisioned new heights of grandeur while getting photographed next to Dominique, arguably the country’s most famous psychiatrist, dubbed as a hybrid between Oprah and Dr. Phil—many were inclined to throw in a big dab of Mother Theresa into that mix—and oh, so beautiful.
No matter, moving six treacherous murderers from state prisons into minimum security, within the sheltering walls of an antebellum Creole plantation, had always been and would always remain simply, a preposterous idea.
Not to mention Dominique’s ill-fated volunteer program for the murdering scoundrels inside a New Orleans homeless shelter. Anyone with a pea brain and a beating heart should have known the very idea was irrational and dangerous to the community. So why was he, Leroy Futrell, a no-account sheriff from a small country parish, the only one capable of fully grasping the concept?
If he’d been able to stop her from the beginning, they could’ve saved themselves one bloody massacre. But he had done what he could, and now had nothing to feel contrite about. Not so much as anyone could ever tell.
Futrell braked. The sight of the voodooiene in a white robe and purple headscarf wandering out of the tall sugar cane field gave the sheriff a start. Wilhelmina Young usually didn’t sneak up on people, nor had he ever before seen her hoisting squawking chickens by their feet onto her bony shoulders.
They had always gotten along well. On Monday mornings, the old woman was usually returning from babysitting the Favro kids, whose parents worked long shifts on the weekends at the oil plant. Whenever he came upon her, Futrell would offer Wilhelmina a ride home. The old woman always declined with a shake of the head and a big toothy smile, but never failed to deliver a little salty gossip from the neighborhood.
Today, she didn’t even look at him as she scampered across the road and ducked into another field. It seemed like Wilhemina was in an awful big hurry to oust some bad juju.
Futrell mopped his forehead with the back of his hand and gently accelerated. Ahead, the road looked like melting black plastic. He felt the first wave of nausea rise inside his esophagus.
A mile later he pulled into Roadside Ruby’s and scowled. Three small cars blocked his usual spot near the door. He pulled his car perpendicular to the others, effectively blocking their escape until he could fill up his thermos. For the first time that day the sheriff felt like smiling. The Crown Vic was almost as long as the other three cars were wide.
Futrell walked into the darkened establishment and sat in the middle booth. A regular at the bar held forth a steady drone of chitchat, while the bartender cut limes with quick precise movements. The TV buzzed a stream of snow while the bar’s handyman and oldest employee climbed a ladder to fix the cable box. These familiar sights and the smell of brewing coffee gave Futrell cold comfort, but just the briefest break from reality.
The waitress was filling up Futrell’s thermos when the TV came to life.
“Prominent psychiatrist and director of Elysian Field’s new reform prison, House of Mithras, was shot and killed in the early hours of Monday morning, inside her office. Details have not been released,” the male reporter from CNN announced.
All movement ceased and a half-dozen pair of eyes flew to Futrell. He kept his own focused on the thermos. The sheriff unceremoniously poured a cup and inhaled two good-sized swallows of burning java before getting up to face the day that he knew would never end.
Futrell drove out of the parking lot and turned on the radio. Static and then:
“Many unanswered questions revolve around the shooting death of Dominique Doucette. Sources close to the prison staff say another person was also fatally shot in the director’s office. No word yet if the fatality was a prisoner or staff, male or female. While investigators…”
Futrell fiddled with the radio always getting more or less the same account of the news delivered either by a caffeine-injected female, or a male shock jock trying to sound serious for once. He turned the radio off and grabbed the manila file lying on the passenger seat. Then he pulled into a parking spot a couple of blocks away from his office and switched off the engine.
In a few minutes he would walk into his office, where no doubt the first of the witnesses with her own file in hand, was waiting patiently. For the next few hours, she and the others would testify informally, to the best of their knowledge. But they’d have to wait a little longer.
Futrell had stayed up all night perusing the journal inside the Delilah file, but something still puzzled him. He wanted to re-read a few of the entries before going in. The sheriff had to be prepared to ask and answer any and all questions. Everyone, including himself, would want to end this day with a respectable version of the truth.
Four weeks earlier
If Guyla Ray Gansen could have leapt up on stage and stuck a finger down her boss’s throat, she might have pulled out whatever obstruction was jamming up those golden words.
As it was, the eminent and normally unflappable Dr. Dominique Doucette was staring dumbly at the audience, like she’d just been frozen in place by an invisible entity. But this wasn’t a scene out of Harry Potter, it was the most important reality show of the celebrated psychiatrist’s life. And if she didn’t start speaking soon, from all around the banquet hall Armani suits would begin a twitching dance inside their thousand-dollar-a-person velvet seats. Ostensibly, these medical professionals, statesmen and royals, had come to Washington, D.C., to watch the famous psychiatrist receive yet another prestigious award, presented by another notable organization.
But that was just the price of admission. These good people were really there to learn if the rumors about House of Mithras were true. They were dying to find out if Dominique’s controversial reform prison for killers would indeed be opening its doors the following week.
So why wasn’t she telling them? Maybe she’s had a stroke and was suffering from amnesia? Keeping most of her vision locked on the stage, Guyla Rae sneaked a peak at their colleague Kevin Wadell, who not surprisingly had pulled an ear-to-ear plasticine grin.
Guyla Rae said, “This isn’t part of the script. I know because I wrote it. What the hell is she doing?”
Kevin said, “I can’t tell, but give her a minute. We’ve come this far.”
Guyla Rae tried to relax, but as she looked past the pretense of tranquility to study Kevin’s handsome features, she saw that he was as worried as she was. Known in some professional circles as Ken Doll, not just because he had the ultimate wasp Super Hero face found in comic books—a lantern jaw, sparkling blue eyes and the tousled, shapely blonde hair found on magazine models—he also possessed that lean sculpted body that only years of disciplined running could shape. Guyla Ray knew something else about him. Next to Dominique, Kevin was the most dedicated professional on the planet who used his waking hours preparing, planning and working, towards eliminating the disparity of mental health care for poor people. He had graduated from the best schools, worked in the worst neighborhoods, and rarely took a dime for his efforts. That his pretty boy appearance occasionally favored a largesse of donations aimed at worthy causes—well, what were good looks for in the first place, if not to create some justice in this big ole’ cruel world?
They were The Three Musketeers. One for all, and all for one. While Dominique arranged and organized programs, Kevin acted as her chief advisor and head clinician. Guyla Rae’s work ran the gamut of public relations duties: speechwriting, managing the flow of information between House of Mithra and the media, and marketing. In reality all of their responsibilities were in flux. On more than one occasion, Guyla Rae had traveled to interview and compile convicts’ histories, while Dominique stayed in her office negotiating building contracts. First and foremost they looked out after each other. That’s what Guyla Rae was doing now.
How long had it been since Dominique had reached the podium? Five seconds? Ten? Thirty? Just before, Guyla Rae recalled, Dominique had been sitting confidently at a table on the stage alongside the visiting queen of Sweden, the honorable mayor of Washington, D.C., and the flamboyant populist governor of Louisiana, Spike Jefferson. After opening remarks the chairman had begun his introduction.
“The International Psychiatric Association has decided to bestow the Creative Humanitarian Prize in the Field of Applied Psychiatry to Dr. Dominique Doucette.” As she sat, the sleek African American woman discreetly arranged papers in front of her and straightened a pen. She looked up at the chairman and threw him a warm earnest smile.
“By combining her revolutionary Desire Therapy with community partnerships, Dr. Doucette has shepherded peaceful solutions to ending civil strife in Haiti. After months of negotiations, Dr. Doucette facilitated the signing of a temporary peace agreement between security forces and a tribal separatist group in northeastern India.”
While the chairman spoke, a young intern brought a tray of coffee and water to the table on the stage and began filling the guests’ cups and glasses. When Dominique turned her body slightly to better hear the chairman, she spilled coffee on her sleeve.
“Dr. Doucette mediated talks between police and community leaders in South Central, Los Angeles, during riots. And most recently, by treating the prison environment as public community, Dr. Doucette was able to forge common goals and shared activities between warring gangs at two east coast state prisons.”
Guyla Rae watched Dominique wipe the stain—no, she was attacking it—as if at any moment the spot might grow by leaps and bounds. Her tablemates looked on with fascination. One of them would say later that they heard her whisper, ‘not a single smudge on your pretty new dress’.
Someone nudged her forward. Dominique looked around bewildered.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Dominique Doucette.”