Bandits, p.1Elmore Leonard
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EVERY TIME THEY GOT a call from the leper hospital to pick up a body Jack Delaney would feel himself coming down with the flu or something. Leo Mullen, his boss, was finally calling it to Jack’s attention. “You notice that? They phone, usually it’s one of the sisters, and a while later you get kind of a moan in your voice. ‘Oh, man, I don’t know what’s the matter with me. I feel kind of punk.’ ”
Jack said, “Punk, I never used the word punk in my life. When was the last time? I mean they called. Wait a minute. How many times since I’ve been here have they called, twice?”
Leo Mullen looked up from the body on the prep table. “You want me to tell you exactly? This is the fourth time I’ve asked you in the past almost three years now.” Leo wore latex gloves and a plastic-coated disposable apron over his vest, shirt, and tie. He looked like a man all dressed up doing the dishes.
Jack Delaney stood in the open double doorway of the tiled room, about five feet from the head of the porcelain table—tilted slightly toward the sink—where Leo was preparing the body. It appeared to be a short balding man with a lot of body hair. The poor guy, his feet down at the other end pointing in at each other, a tag wired to his left big toe. Jack would never walk in here and look directly at a body. He’d take quick glances to guard against shockers, accident victims, sights that could remain vivid in your mind forever. This one seemed to be safe. Jack looked. Oh, shit. And looked away again. The guy must have been in a car wreck. He wasn’t balding, he’d been scalped in front, given a sudden receding hairline through a car windshield. Jack ran a hand through his own hair. Then dropped his hand before Leo noticed and might tell him to get a haircut. He kept his eyes on Leo, who was squirting Dis-Spray, a disinfectant, into all of the guy’s orifices, his nostrils, his mouth, his ears, all of his dark openings.
“All three times they phoned the times before,” Leo said, “I seem to recall you came down with some kind of twenty-four-hour bug. That’s all I’m saying. Am I right or wrong?”
Jack said, “I’ve been to Carville. When I worked for the Rivés we’d go up there once or twice a year, tune the organ. One of ’em, usually Uncle Brother, would be on the console hitting notes, I’m up in the loft by the pipes, way up on a shaky ladder making the adjustments on the sleeve. I was the one with the ear.”
Leo looked like he was tuning the organ of the guy on the prep table, lifting his private parts to spray down in there good, Jack watching, thinking the guy might’ve been proud of that set at one time. A little guy, but hung.
Jack said, “Have I mentioned I’m sick or not feeling too good?”
Leo said, “Not yet you haven’t. They just called.” He picked up a plastic hose attached to the sink and turned on the water. “Hold this for me, will you?”
“I can’t,” Jack said, “I’m not licensed.”
“I won’t tell on you. Come on, just keep the table rinsed. Run it off from by the incision.”
Jack edged in to take the hose without looking directly at the body. “There’re things I’d rather do than handle a person that died of leprosy.”
“Hansen’s disease,” Leo said. “You don’t die from it, you die of something else.”
Jack said, “If I remember correctly, the last time Carville had a body for us you had a removal service get it.”
“On account of I had three bodies in the house already, two of ’em up here, and you telling me how punk you felt.”
Jack said, “Hey, Leo? Bullshit. You don’t want to touch a dead leper anymore’n I do.”
Jack Delaney could talk this way to his boss because they were pretty good friends and because Leo was his brother-in-law, married to Jack’s sister, Raejeanne, and because Jack’s mother lived with Leo and Raejeanne part of the year, the four or five months they spent across the lake, at Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.
Leo was the last of Mullen & Sons, Funeral Directors, the fifty-year-old grandson of the founder; he had gone to work for his dad and an uncle and was now on his own, the end of the line. In ten years he’d sell and retire to the Bay, put out crab nets, and read historical novels. In the meantime he would appear dedicated, offer words of comfort, lead rosaries if he had to, and never duck upstairs for a drink until the bereaved had gone home. There were bartenders who thought Leo was Jack’s uncle. Jack said to him one time at Mandina’s, “You should never have been an undertaker.” And Leo said, “Now you tell me.”
Jack Delaney was all of a sudden forty but looked younger. His mother called him either her fine boy or her handsome son. She never mentioned Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, where her boy had served thirty-five months working in cotton and soybean fields and clearing brush. Jack told his mom they had brush brought in from Mississippi when they ran out. His mom had seven framed photographs of him on her dresser, several of them she’d cut out of the paper when he appeared in fashion ads for Maison Blanche. She had one photo of Raejeanne, her daughter’s Dominican High graduation picture. Girls loved Jack’s mussed sandy hair, his slim build, his hint of a nice-guy smile. They said, “Oh, wow,” when he told them he’d been a fashion model, sportswear mostly. They said, “Oh, my Lord,” if he happened to mention he’d served time. The girls would wrinkle their noses, wondering what this cute guy could have done to be sent to prison. He’d tell them it was a long story but, well, he had been a jewel thief at one time. They’d want to hear it and he’d tell about some of the scarier situations, low key, having learned there were girls who were turned on by presentable ex-cons.
While he was living in medium-security at Angola it was Leo who did the most for him. Leo talked to some of the right people in Baton Rouge, told them his brother-in-law was a little wild, immature. You know, thought he was a hotshot, every girl’s dream. Leo explained that Jack was intelligent but had lacked proper discipline as a boy; his dad had died in Honduras working for United Fruit when Jack was in the ninth grade at Jesuit High. Jack was the kind, he’d always been full of the devil. Like he’d go over to Manchac and hunt snakes and dump them into country-club swimming pools. But not poisonous ones. Leo told the people in Baton Rouge he’d give Jack Delaney a job in a profession that offered daily reminders of life’s realities, its consequences, and get him straightened out. That is, once Jack spent some time in state rehabilitation, one month shy of three years out of the five to twenty-five of his sentence.
So going to work for Mullen & Sons, 3600 Canal Street, was part of Jack’s parole deal. He didn’t see working with dead people any more a career opportunity than picking cotton at Angola; but here he was living on the second floor of a funeral home, down the hall from the embalming room, driving a hearse, picking up bodies at hospitals and parish morgues, watching the door during visitation hour
Leo said now, “If you haven’t been to Carville since you worked for the Rivé brothers it must be six or seven years.”
“Longer’n that,” Jack said.
“They’re not sure how you contract leprosy—I mean Hansen’s disease—though I’ve read you can get it from an armadillo. So stay away from armadillos.”
Jack didn’t say anything.
“I know none of the sisters ever got it and they’ve been there since the place opened, almost a hundred years ago. The same ones that are at Charity Hospital. You recall if you met a Sister Teresa Victor?”
Jack didn’t answer or say anything because he was staring at the face of the man on the prep table, recognizing familiar features beneath the lacerations, realizing he knew him, even without the dark hair that used to curl down on his forehead. Jack said, “That’s Buddy Jeannette, isn’t it?” Surprised, but quiet about it, a little stunned. “Jesus Christ, it is, it’s Buddy Jeannette.”
Leo turned to look at the death certificate, on the counter next to the Porti-Boy embalming machine. “Denis Alexander Jeannette,” Leo said. “Born in the parish of Orleans, April twenty-third, 1937.”
“It’s Buddy. Jesus.” Jack shook his head and said, “I don’t believe it.”
Leo had Buddy hooked up to the Porti-Boy now, the machine pumping a pink fluid called Permaglo through clear plastic tubing that snaked over Buddy’s naked body and into his carotid artery, in the right side of his neck. Leo looked up, took time to study Jack.
“Why don’t you believe it?”
“He was so careful.”
Leo picked up the hose, began to play its gentle stream over Buddy Jeannette’s shoulders and chest. “Where’d you know him, in prison?”
“Before,” Jack said. There was a silence, Leo waiting, running the hose over Buddy, soaping him. “I’d see him downtown. Like a Saturday afternoon I might see him in the bar at the Roosevelt, we’d have a drink.”
“Sounds like you were pretty good friends.” Leo was massaging Buddy with the soap, kneading his flesh to help the Permaglo work through and give him a tint of natural color.
“We were friends when we saw each other,” Jack said. “But if we didn’t see each other it didn’t matter.”
“I don’t recall you ever mentioned him.”
“Well, it was a long time ago.”
“When I’d run into him.” He was getting used to looking at Buddy’s wounds. The poor guy’s head, skinned raw, looked sunburned. “He was in an accident, huh?”
“Went off the road into a canal. Early this morning,” Leo said, “out on the Chef highway.” He looked over at the death certificate again. “I see your friend was married. Lived in Kenner.”
“Is that right?”
“Only he had somebody else in the car with him. A young lady,” Leo said. “How’d you like to be his wife and you’re told that?”
Jack said, “Well, that can happen, I guess.”
“No matter how careful you are?”
“Maybe I was wrong,” Jack said. “Maybe he wasn’t careful. Or he was at one time but going through the windshield changed him. I don’t know anything about him, what he’s been doing.”
“Sounds like we have a touchy subject here.” Leo turned to check the pressure gauge on the Porti-Boy machine.
Jack knew he should leave, right now; but he continued to look at Buddy. “What happened to the person that was with him?”
“You mean the young lady that wasn’t his wife? The same thing that happened to your friend,” Leo said. “Cause of death, multiple injuries. Pick one. I’m surprised they didn’t do a post on ’em at the morgue. All they did was take some blood. The young lady’s out at Lakeview. You know where I mean? In Metairie, brand-new building. They must do two hundred funerals a year, easy. Mrs. Jeannette requested your friend be brought here. But you act like you don’t know her.”
“I don’t. I didn’t even know he was married.”
“How about the girl friend?”
“You mean the girl that was with him? What’re you trying to find out, Leo?”
“You know lots of girls. I just thought you might’ve known the one he had in the car.”
“Tell me what you’re getting at.”
“We’re talking about girls, Jack. What’s a good place to meet ’em these days?” Leo was reaching into the cabinet above the Porti-Boy now. “I hear the Bayou Bar at the Pontchartrain isn’t bad.”
“It’s all right.”
Leo turned to Buddy Jeannette with a sixteen-inch trocar, a hollow, chrome-plated brass rod with a handle at one end and a knife-sharp point at the other.
“You were there, weren’t you, just a few days ago?”
“Leo, don’t start with the trocar yet, okay? Let’s get this cleared up. What day are we talking about?”
“You worked three nights this week, so it must’ve been Monday. I think around six o’clock.”
Jack nodded, but not ready to come right out and admit anything, his conscience telling him he was innocent. “Uh-huh, and who was I with?”
Leo said, “You know who you were with.” He picked up a length of plastic tubing coupled to a metal aspirating device that hung inside the sink and attached the tubing to the handle end of the trocar. “You gonna try and tell me you weren’t with her? Kind of girl you can spot a mile away with that red hair?”
“Yeah, I was with Helene.”
“You admit it.”
“I want to know who told you.”
“You admit it, what difference does it make?”
“Leo, you’re not sayng I was with her, you’re accusing me of it.”
“If that’s the way you take it.”
“But what am I being accused of? I’m not a parolee anymore, Leo, I’ve been rehabilitated. I don’t have to stand at attention and take any more shit, okay? I want to know what I did.”
“I don’t know. Did you take her up to a room?”
“I happpen to run into her. I haven’t seen Helene in, you know how long, it’s been years.”
“Since you went to prison.”
“We had a drink, that’s all.”
“But did you have the urge?”
“Take her up to a room.”
“Leo, you can’t look at a girl like Helene and not get the urge, that’s the way God made us.” He watched Leo move toward Buddy with the trocar. “What it looks like to me, you’re worried I could be getting into something,” Jack said, “or I’m gonna screw up again because this guy used to be a friend of mine, years ago.”
“About the same time as Helene.”
“See, that’s what I mean. They didn’t even know each other. This poor guy, he’s driving out Chef Menteur with a girl could be his sister-in-law, a friend of the family, you don’t know. But you start imagining things. I’m guilty because he’s guilty and you don’t even know if he is. But the thing is, Leo, even if the young lady in the car was his girlfriend, what’s it got to do with me?”
“I worry about you,” Leo said.
“I don’t know, I guess it’s your nature, your tendencies, make me a little nervous.”
“We’re two different people, Leo.”
“We sure are.”
“You like this work, I don’t. You like to lie in the hammock at the Bay, read your book, smell the gumbo Raejeanne’s fixing in the kitchen . . .”
“And what do you like to do, Jack?”
Jack didn’t answer, looking at the spearlike trocar poised above Buddy Jeannette’s belly, a few inches from his navel.
“See?” Leo said. “You don’t think of normal things that’d be on the tip of your tongue everybody enjoys, you have to try and think of something cra
“I wasn’t thinking anything at all. But if you don’t mind my saying, Leo, I think this business ages you before your time. It’s always serious. You know, there are very few light moments.” He watched, with a sense of relief, Leo relaxing his grip on the trocar.
“You’re right,” Leo said, “I tend to jump to conclusions. I hear you’re with that redheaded broad and right away I see you getting back in that hotel cocktail lounge routine.”
“I bought her a drink.”
“Yeah, well, even that. After what she did to you, you have to be out of your mind even to say hello to her.”
“She didn’t do anything to me, Leo. I did it to myself. The intellect presents it to the will, right? And the will says no way or let’s do it. We learned that in high school. It means don’t blame somebody else when you fuck up.”
“As long as you realize,” Leo said, “you start looking for that kind of excitement again there’re only two ways you can end up. The one you know all about and the other way, Jack, is on this table. Like your friend here has found out.”
“I’ll go to Carville tomorrow.”
“I’d appreciate it,” Leo said. He looked down and touched the sharp end of the trocar to Buddy Jeannette’s belly, the point indenting soft flesh an inch or so above the navel.
Jack said, “Wait. What time should I go?” He saw Leo hunch over the instrument and said, “Leo, wait. Okay?” He said, “Oh, shit,” turning away.
* * *
ONE OF THE BARTENDERS at Mandina’s, Mario, a young guy Jack Delaney knew pretty well, said, “You stick the thing right into the person, like you’re stabbing him?”
“How else you gonna do it?”
“You poke the guy all over?”
“No, once you put the trocar in it stays in the same place. You change the angle. See, what you’re doing is aspirating the viscera. You hit the liver and it doesn’t give, you know the guy was a boozer, had cirrhosis.”
“I could never do that. Jesus.”
“You get used to it.”
Bandits by Elmore Leonard / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes