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“One of the very best American crime writers”
(Los Angeles Times Book Review),
James Lee Burke has penned eighteen superb thrillers featuring resilient Louisiana lawman Dave Robicheaux. Now, fans will rejoice at the return of this splendid entry, fifth in the New York Times bestselling series, back in print once more!
Accolades for Edgar Award–winning author James Lee Burke and
A STAINED WHITE RADIANCE
“James Lee Burke is the best writer of detective fiction on the American scene and A Stained White Radiance is proof. . . . Burke can make his people and places seem outrageously alive.”
—San Francisco Examiner
“It takes off like a rocket. . . . His action scenes crackle.”
“One of his best.”
—The Times-Picayune (New Orleans)
“A wild, bumpy, teeth-jarring ride. . . . [A] cinematically fast-paced yet reflective crime novel. . . . Passages of lyric beauty and passages of explicit horror make it vintage Burke. . . . He has created, in Dave Robicheaux, a complex and convincing protagonist. . . . Among even his talented contemporaries, Burke is something special.”
—Joyce Carol Oates, Washington Post Book World
This title is also available from Simon & Schuster Audio
“American crime fiction has no finer prose stylist than James Lee Burke, and he has never been better than in A Stained White Radiance. . . . He is . . . uncommonly concerned with and eloquent about the textures and stresses of his times.”
—Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Fine entertainment . . . a rich depiction of a people and a place.”
—The New Yorker
“Burke writes dark, powerful stories. Present in this fifth novel in the series is a sense of how fragile life is and how quickly it can rip apart.”
—Star Tribune (Minneapolis-St. Paul)
“Burke’s richest, most biting view of the New South.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Wonderful. . . . An intense and at times electrifying reflection on the degeneration and tenacity of society and family . . . There is violence, too, as foul and mean as violence is—not the tinny crashing around that masquerades as narrative thunder in some detective novels. . . . You have to look hard to find a better writer of crime fiction.”
—Detroit Free Press
“An emotional, powerful, and sometimes disturbing novel written by a master stylist.”
“Superb. . . . It delivers what Burke has always promised his fans.”
More nationwide acclaim for the astonishing James Lee Burke
“Burke can touch you in ways few writers can.”
—The Washington Post
“Flat-out the best mystery writer in America.”
—The Oregonian (Portland)
“Burke is brilliant . . . One of the finest suspense novelists to grace our time.”
“I don’t think there’s a more lyrical writer of crime fiction than James Lee Burke working today.”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Burke is a master.”
—The Kansas City Star
“Nobody captures the spirit of Gulf Coast Louisiana better.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Burke’s descriptive powers are poetic.”
—Rocky Mountain News (Denver)
“Burke keeps a reader’s blood pumping.”
—Los Angeles Times
I HAD KNOWN THE Sonnier family all my life. I had attended the Catholic elementary school in New Iberia with three of them, had served with one of them in Vietnam, and for a short time had dated Drew, the youngest child, before I went away to the war. But, as I learned with Drew, the Sonniers belonged to that group of people whom you like from afar, not because of what they are themselves, but because of what they represent—a failure in the way that they’re put together, a collapse of some genetic or familial element that should be the glue of humanity.
The background of the Sonnier children was one that you instinctively knew you didn’t want to know more about, in the same way that you don’t want to hear the story of a desperate and driven soul in an after-hours bar. As a police officer it has been my experience that pedophiles are able to operate and stay functional over long periods of time and victimize scores, even hundreds, of children, because no one wants to believe his or her own intuitions about the symptoms in the perpetrator. We are repelled and sickened by the images that our own minds suggest, and we hope against hope that the problem is in reality simply one of misperception.
Systematic physical cruelty toward children belongs in the same shoebox. Nobody wants to deal with it. I cannot remember one occasion, in my entire life, when I saw one adult interfere in a public place with the mistreatment of a child at the hands of another adult. Prosecutors often wince when they have to take a child abuser to trial, because usually the only witnesses they can use are children who are terrified at the prospect of testifying against their parents. And ironically a successful prosecution means that the victim will become a legal orphan, to be raised by foster parents or in a state institution that is little more than a warehouse for human beings.
As a child I saw the cigarette burns on the arms and legs of the Sonnier children. They were scabbed over and looked like coiled, gray worms. I came to believe that the Sonniers grew up in a furnace rather than a home.
It was a lovely spring day when the dispatcher at the Iberia Parish sheriff’s office, where I worked as a plainclothes detective, called me at home and said that somebody had fired a gun through Weldon Sonnier’s dining-room window and I could save time by going out there directly rather than reporting to the office first.
I was at my breakfast table, and through the open window I could smell the damp, fecund odor of the hydrangeas in my flower bed and last night’s rainwater dripping out of the pecan and oak trees in the yard. It was truly a fine morning, the early sunlight as soft as smoke in the tree limbs.
“Are you there, Dave?” the dispatcher said.
“Ask the sheriff to send someone else on this one,” I said.
“You don’t like Weldon?”
“I like Weldon. I just don’t like some of the things that probably go on in Weldon’s head.”
“Okay, I’ll tell the old man.”
“Never mind,” I said. “I’ll head out there in about fifteen minutes. Give me the rest of it.”
“That’s all we got. His wife called it in. He didn’t. Does that sound like Weldon?” He laughed.
People said Weldon had spent over two hundred thousand dollars restoring his antebellum home out in the parish on Bayou Teche. It was built of weathered white-painted brick, with a wide columned porch, a second-floor verandah that wrapped all the way around the house, ventilated green window shutters, twin brick chimneys at each extreme of the house, and scrolled ironwork that had been taken from historical buildings in the New Orleans French Quarter. The long driveway that led from the road to the house was covered with a canopy of moss-hung live oaks, but Weldon Sonnier was not one to waste land space for the baroque and ornamental. All the property in front of the house, even the area down by the bayou where the slave quarters had once stood, had been leased to tenants who planted sugarcane on it.
It had always struck me as ironic that Weldon would pay out so much of his oil money in order to live in an antebellum home, whereas in fact he had grown up in an Acadian farmhouse that was over one hundred and fifty years old, a beautiful piece of hand-hewn, notched, and pegged cypress architecture that members of the New Iberia historical preservation society openly wept over when Weldon hired a group of half-drunk black men out of a ramshackle, backroad nightclub, gave them crowbars and axes, and calmly smoked a cigar and sipped from a glass of Cold Duck on top of a fence rail while they ripped the old Sonnier house into a pile of boards he later sold for two hundred dollars to a cabinetmaker.
When I drove my pickup truck down the driveway and parked under a spreading oak by the front porch, two uniformed deputies were waiting for me in their car, their front doors open to let in the breeze that blew across the shaded lawn. The driver, an ex-Houston cop named Garrett, a barrel of a man with a thick blond mustache and a face the color of a fresh sunburn, flipped his cigarette into the rose bed and stood up to meet me. He wore pilot’s sunglasses, and a green dragon was tattooed around his right forearm. He was still new, and I didn’t know him well, but I’d heard that he had resigned from the Houston force after he had been suspended during an Internal Affairs investigation.
“What do you have?” I said.
“Not much,” he said. “Mr. Sonnier says it was probably an accident. Some kids hunting rabbits or something.”
“What does Mrs. Sonnier say?”
“She’s eating tranquilizers in the breakfast room.”
“What does she say?”
“Call me Dave. You think it was just some kids?”
“Take a look at the size of the hole in the dining room wall and tell me.”
Then I saw him bite the corner of his lip at the abruptness in his tone. I started toward the front door.
“Dave, wait a minute,” he said, took off his glasses, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “While you were on vacation, the woman called us twice and reported a prowler. We came out and didn’t find anything, so I marked it off. I thought maybe her terminals were a little fried.”
“They are. She’s a pill addict.”
“She said she saw a guy with a scarred face looking through her window. She said it looked like red putty or something. The ground was wet, though, and I didn’t see any footprints. But maybe she did see something. I probably should have checked it out a little better.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll take it from here. Why don’t you guys head up to the café for coffee?”
“She’s the sister of that Nazi or Klan politician in New Orleans, isn’t she?”
“You got it. Weldon knows how to pick ’em.” Then I couldn’t resist. “You know who Weldon’s brother is, don’t you?”
“That TV preacher in Baton Rouge? No kidding? I bet that guy could steal the stink off of shit and not get the smell on his hands.”
“Welcome to south Louisiana, podna.”
Weldon shook hands when he answered the door. His hand was big, square, callused along the heel and the index finger. Even when he grinned, Weldon’s face was bold, the eyes like buckshot, the jaw rectangular and hard. His brown-gray crewcut was shaved to the scalp above his large ears, and he always seemed to be biting softly on his molars, flexing the lumps of cartilage behind his jawline. He wore his house slippers, a pair of faded beltless Levi’s, and a paint-stained T-shirt that molded his powerful biceps and flat stomach. He hadn’t shaved and he had a cup of coffee in his hand. He was polite to me—Weldon was always polite—but he kept looking at his watch.
“I can’t tell you anything else, Dave,” he said, as we stood in the doorway of his dining room. “I was standing there in front of the glass doors, looking out at the sunrise over the bayou, and pop, it came right through the glass and hit the wall over yonder.” He grinned.
“It must have scared you,” I said.
“Yeah, you look all shaken up, Weldon. Why did your wife call us instead of you?”
“She worries a lot.”
“Look, Dave, I saw two black kids earlier. They chased a rabbit out of the canebrake, then I saw them shooting at some mockingbirds up in a tree on the bayou. I think they live in one of those old nigger shacks down the road. Why don’t you go talk to them?”
He looked at the time on the mahogany grandfather clock at the far end of the dining room, then adjusted the hands on his wristwatch.
“The black kids didn’t have a shotgun, did they?” I asked.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Did they have a .22?”
“I don’t know, Dave.”
“But that’s what they’d probably have if they were shooting rabbits or mockingbirds, wouldn’t they? At least if they didn’t have a shotgun.”
I looked at the hole in the pane of glass toward the top of the French door. I pulled my fountain pen, one almost as thick as my little finger, from my pocket and inserted the end in the hole. Then I crossed the dining room and did the same thing with the hole in the wall. There was a stud behind the wall, and the fountain pen went into the hole three inches before it tapped anything solid.
“Do you believe a .22 round did this?” I asked.
“Maybe it ricocheted and toppled,” he answered.
I walked back to the French doors, opened them onto the flagstone patio, and gazed down the sloping blue-green lawn to the bayou. Among the cypresses and oaks on the bank were a dock and a weathered boat shed. Between the mudbank and the lawn was a low red-brick wall that Weldon had constructed to keep his land from eroding into the Teche.
“I think what you’re doing is dumb, Weldon,” I said, still looking at the brick wall and the trees on the bank silhouetted against the glaze of sunlight on the bayou’s brown surface.
“Excuse me?” he said.
“Who has reason to hurt you?”
“Not a soul.” He smiled. “At least not to my knowledge.”
“I don’t want to be personal, but your brother-in-law is Bobby Earl.”
“He’s quite a guy. A CBS newsman called him ‘the Robert Redford of racism.’ ”
“Yeah, Bobby liked that one.”
“I heard you pulled Bobby across a table in Copeland’s by his necktie and sawed it off with a steak knife.”
“Actually, it was Mason’s over on Magazine.”
“Oh, I see. How did he like being humiliated in a restaurant full of people?”
“He took it all right. Bobby’s not a bad guy. You just have to define the situation for him once in a while.”
“How about some of his followers—Klansmen, American Nazis, members of the Aryan Nation? You think they’re all-right guys, too?”
“I don’t take Bobby seriously.”
“A lot of people do.”
“That’s their problem. Bobby has about six inches of dong and two of brain. If the press left him alone, he’d be selling debit insurance.”
“I’ve heard another story about you, Weldon, maybe a more serious one.”
“Dave, I don’t want to offend you. I’m sorry you had to come out here. I’m sorry my wife is wired all the time and sees rubber faces leering in the window. I appreciate the job you have to do, but I don’t know who put a hole in my glass. That’s the truth, and I have to go to work.”
“I’ve heard you’re broke.”
“What else is new? That’s the independent oil business. It’s either dusters or gushers.”
“Do you owe somebody money?”
I saw the cartilage work behind his jaws.
“I’m getting a little on edge here, Dave.”
“I’m sorry about that.”
“I drilled my first well with spit and junkyard scrap. I didn’t get a goddamn bit of help from anybody either. No loans, no credit, just me, four nigras, an alcoholic driller from Texas, and a lot of ass-busting work.” He pointed his finger at me. “I’ve kept it together for twenty years, too, podna. I don’t go begging money from anybody, and I’ll tell you something else, too. Somebody leans on me, somebody fires a rifle into my house, I square it personally.”
“I hope you don’t. I’d hate to see you in trouble, Weldon. I’d like to talk with your wife now, please.”
He put a cigarette in his mouth, lit it, and dropped the heavy metal lighter indifferently on the gleaming wood surface of his dining-room table.
“Yeah, sure,” he said. “Just take it a little bit easy. She’s having a reaction to her medication or something. It affects her blood pressure.”
His wife was a pale, small-boned, ash-blonde woman, whose milk-white skin was lined with blue veins. She wore a pink silk house robe, and she had brushed her hair back over her neck and had put on fresh makeup. She should have been pretty, but she always had a startled look in her blue eyes, as though she heard invisible doors slamming around her. The breakfast room was domed and glassed-in, filled with sunlight and hanging fern and philodendron plants, and the view of the bayou, the oaks and the bamboo, the trellises erupting with purple wisteria, was a magnificent one. But her face seemed to register none of it. Her eyes were unnaturally wide, the pupils shrunken to small black dots, her skin so tight that you thought perhaps someone was twisting the back of her hair in a knot. I wondered what it must have been like to grow up in the same home that had produced a man like Bobby Earl.
She had been christened Bama. Her accent was soft, pleasant to listen to, more Mississippi than Louisiana, but in it you heard a tremolo, as though a nerve ending were pulled loose and fluttering inside her.
She said she had been in bed when she heard the shot and the glass break. But she hadn’t seen anything.
“What about this prowler you reported, Mrs. Sonnier? Do you have any idea who he might have been?” I smiled at her.
“Of course not.”
“You never saw him before?”
“No. He was horrible.”
I saw Weldon raise his eyes toward the ceiling, then turn away and look out at the bayou.
“How do you mean?” I asked.
“He must have been in a fire,” she said. “His ears were little stubs. His face was like red rubber, like a big red inner-tube patch.”
Weldon turned back toward me.
“You’ve got all that on file down at your office, haven’t you, Dave?” he said. “There’s not any point in covering the same old territory, is there?”
“Maybe not, Weldon,” I said, closed my small notebook, and replaced it in my pocket. “Mrs. Sonnier, here’s one of my cards. Give me a call if you remember anything else or if I can be of any other help to you.”
Weldon rubbed one hand on the back of the other and tried to hold the frown out of his face.
“I’ll take a walk down to the back of your property, if you don’t mind,” I said.
“Help yourself,” he said.
The Saint Augustine grass was wet with the morning dew and thick as a sponge as I walked between the oaks down to the bayou. In a sunny patch of ground next to an old gray roofless barn, one that still had an ancient tin Hadacol sign nailed to a wall, was a garden planted with strawberries and watermelons. I walked along beside the brick retaining wall, scanning the mudflat that sloped down to the bayou’s edge. It was crisscrossed with the tracks of neutrias and raccoons and the delicate impressions of egrets and herons; then, not far from the cypress planks that led to Weldon’s dock and boathouse, I saw a clutter of footprints at the base of the brick wall.
I propped my palms on the cool bricks and studied the bank. One set of footprints led from the cypress planks to the wall, then back again, but somebody with a larger shoe size had stepped on top of the original tracks. There was also a smear of mud on top of the brick wall, and on the grass, right by my foot, was a Lucky Strike cigarette butt. I took a plastic Ziploc bag from my pocket and gingerly scooped the cigarette butt inside it.
I was about to turn back toward the house when the breeze blew the oak limbs overhead, and the pattern of sunlight and shade shifted on the ground like the squares in a net, and I saw a brassy glint in a curl of mud. I stepped over the wall, and with the tip of my pen lifted a spent .308 hull out of the mud and dropped it in the plastic bag with the cigarette butt.
I walked through the sideyard, back out to the front drive and my pickup truck. Weldon was waiting for me. I held the plastic bag up briefly for him to look at.
“Here’s the size round your rabbit hunter was using,” I said. “He’d ejected it, too, Weldon. Unless he had a semiautomatic rifle, he was probably going to take a second shot at you.”
“Look, from here on out, how about talking to me and leaving Bama out of it? She’s not up to it.”
I took a breath and looked away through the oak trees at the sunlight on the blacktop road.
“I think your wife has a serious problem. Maybe it’s time to address it,” I said.
I could see the heat in his neck. He cleared his throat.
“Maybe you’re going a little beyond the limits of your job, too,” he said.
“Maybe. But she’s a nice lady, and I think she needs help.”
He chewed on his lower lip, put his hands on his hips, looked down at his foot, and stirred a pattern in the pea gravel, like a third-base coach considering his next play.
“There are a bunch of twelve-step groups in New Iberia and St. Martinville. They’re good people,” I said.
He nodded without looking up.
“Let me ask you something else,” I said. “You flew an observation plane off a carrier in Vietnam, didn’t you? You must have been pretty good.”
“Give me a chimpanzee, three bananas, and thirty minutes of his attention, and I’ll give you a pilot.”
“I also heard you flew for Air America.”
“Not everybody has that kind of material in his dossier. You’re not still involved in some CIA bullshit, are you?”
He tapped his jaw with his finger like a drum.
“CIA . . . yeah, that’s Catholic, Irish, and alcoholic, right? No, I’m a coonass, my religion is shaky, and I’ve never hit the juice. I don’t guess I fit the category, Dave.”
“I see. If you get tired of it, call me at the office or at home.”
“Tired of what?”
“Jerking yourself around, being clever with people who’re trying to help you. I’ll see you around, Weldon.”
I left him standing in his driveway, a faint grin on his mouth, a piece of cartilage as thick as a biscuit in his jaw, his big, square hands open and loose at his sides.
BACK AT THE OFFICE I asked the dispatcher where Garrett, the new man, was.
“He went to pick up a prisoner in St. Martinville. You want me to call him?” he said.
“Ask him to drop by my office when he has a chance. It’s nothing urgent.” I kept my face empty of meaning. “Tell me, what kind of beef did he have with Internal Affairs in Houston?”
“Actually it was his partner who had the beef. Maybe you read about it. The partner left Garrett in the car and marched a Mexican kid under the bridge on Buffalo Bayou and played Russian roulette with him. Except he miscalculated where the round was in the cylinder and blew the kid’s brains all over a concrete piling. Garrett got pissed off because he was under investigation, cussed out a captain, and quit the department. It’s too bad, because they cleared him later. So I guess he’s starting all over. Did something happen out there at the Sonniers’?”
“No, I just wanted to compare notes with him.”
- On Sale
- Apr 2, 1992
- Page Count
- 305 pages
- Hachette Books