Feast Day of Fools, p.1James Lee Burke
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BY THE SAME AUTHOR
DAVE ROBICHEAUX NOVELS
The Glass Rainbow
The Tin Roof Blowdown
Last Car to Elysian Fields
Jolie Blon’s Bounce
Purple Cane Road
Dixie City Jam
In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead
A Stained White Radiance
A Morning for Flamingos
Black Cherry Blues
The Neon Rain
BILLY BOB HOLLAND NOVELS
In the Moon of Red Ponies
HACKBERRY HOLLAND NOVELS
Lay Down My Sword and Shield
Jesus Out to Sea
White Doves at Morning
The Lost Get-Back Boogie
The Convict and Other Stories
Two for Texas
To the Bright and Shining Sun
Half of Paradise
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2011 by James Lee Burke
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First Simon & Schuster hardcover edition September 2011
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Manufactured in the United States of America
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Burke, James Lee.
Feast day of fools: a novel / James Lee Burke.
1. Texas—Fiction. I. Title.
ISBN: 978-1-4516-4314-5 (ebook)
For Dora, Mike, and Alicia Liu
About the Author
The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people.
FEAST DAY OF FOOLS
SOME PEOPLE SAID Danny Boy Lorca’s visions came from the mescal that had fried his brains, or the horse-quirt whippings he took around the ears when he served time on Sugar Land Farm, or the fact he’d been a middleweight club fighter through a string of dust-blown sinkholes where the locals were given a chance to beat up what was called a tomato can, a fighter who leaked blood every place he was hit, in this case a rumdum Indian who ate his pain and never flinched when his opponents broke their hands on his face.
Danny Boy’s black hair was cut in bangs and fitted his head like a helmet. His physique was as square as a door, his clothes always smelling of smoke from the outdoor fires he cooked his food on, his complexion as dark and coarsened by the sun and wind as the skin on a shrunken head. In summer, he wore long-sleeve cotton work shirts buttoned at the throat and wrists to keep the heat out, and in winter, a canvas coat and an Australian flop hat tied down over his ears with a scarf. He fought his hangovers in a sweat lodge, bathed in ice water, planted by the moon, cast demons out of his body into sand paintings that he flung at the sky, prayed in a loincloth on a mesa in the midst of electric storms, and sometimes experienced either seizures or trances during which he spoke a language that was neither Apache nor Navajo, although he claimed it was both.
Sometimes he slept in the county jail. Other nights he slept behind the saloon or in the stucco house where he lived on the cusp of a wide alluvial floodplain bordered on the southern horizon by purple mountains that in the late-afternoon warp of heat seemed to take on the ragged irregularity of sharks’ teeth.
The sheriff who allowed Danny Boy to sleep at the jail was an elderly six-feet-five widower by the name of Hackberry Holland, whose bad back and chiseled profile and Stetson hat and thumb-buster .45 revolver and history as a drunk and a whoremonger were the sum total of his political cachet, if not his life. To most people in the area, Danny Boy was an object of pity and ridicule and contempt. His solipsistic behavior and his barroom harangues were certainly characteristic of a wet brain, they said. But Sheriff Holland, who had been a prisoner of war for almost three years in a place in North Korea called No Name Valley, wasn’t so sure. The sheriff had arrived at an age when he no longer speculated on the validity of a madman’s visions or, in general, the foibles of human behavior. Instead, Hackberry Holland’s greatest fear was his fellow man’s propensity to act collectively, in militaristic lockstep, under the banner of God and country. Mobs did not rush across town to do good deeds, and in Hackberry’s view, there was no more odious taint on any social or political endeavor than universal approval. To Hackberry, Danny Boy’s alcoholic madness was a respite from a far greater form of delusion.
It was late on a Wednesday night in April when Danny Boy walked out into the desert with an empty duffel bag and an army-surplus entrenching tool, the sky as black as soot, the southern horizon pulsing with electricity that resembled gold wires, the softness of the ground crumbling under his cowboy boots, as though he were treading across the baked shell of an enormous riparian environment that had been layered and beveled and smoothed with a sculptor’s knife. At the base of a mesa, he folded the entrenching tool into the shape of a hoe and knelt down and began digging in the ground, scraping through the remains of fossilized leaves and fish and birds that others said were millions of years old. In the distance, an igneous flash spread silently through the clouds, flaring in great yellow pools, lighting the desert floor and t
He scraped harder in the dirt, trenching a circle around what appeared to be two tapered soft-nosed rocks protruding from the incline below the mesa. Then his e-tool broke through an armadillo’s burrow. He inverted the handle and stuck it down the hole and wedged the earth upward until the burrow split across the top and he could work his hand deep into the hole, up to the elbow, and feel the shapes of the clustered objects that were as pointed and hard as calcified dugs.
The night air was dense with an undefined feral odor, like cougar scat and a sun-bleached carcass and burnt animal hair and water that had gone stagnant in a sandy drainage traced with the crawl lines of reptiles. The wind blew between the hills in the south, and he felt its coolness and the dampness of the rain mist on his face. He saw the leaves on the mesquite ripple like green lace, the mesas and buttes shimmering whitely against the clouds, then disappearing into the darkness again. He smelled the piñon and juniper and the scent of delicate flowers that bloomed only at night and whose petals dropped off and clung to the rocks at sunrise like translucent pieces of colored rice paper. He stared at the southern horizon but saw no sign of the six men carrying rifles. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and went back to work, scooping out a big hole around the stonelike objects that were welded together as tightly as concrete.
The first shot was a tiny pop, like a wet firecracker exploding. He stared into the fine mist swirling through the hills. Then the lightning flared again, and he saw the armed men stenciled against the horizon and the silhouettes of two other figures who had broken from cover and were running toward the north, toward Danny Boy, toward a place that should have been safe from the criminality and violence that he believed was threading its way out of Mexico into his life.
He lifted the nest of stony egg-shaped artifacts from the earth and slid them into the duffel bag and pulled the cord tight through the brass eyelets at the top. He headed back toward his house, staying close to the bottom of the mesa, avoiding the tracks he had made earlier, which he knew the armed men would eventually see and follow. Then a bolt of lightning exploded on top of the mesa, lighting the floodplain and the willows along the dry streambed and the arroyos and crevices and caves in the hillsides as brightly as the sun.
He plunged down a ravine, holding the duffel bag and e-tool at his sides for balance. He crouched behind a rock, hunching against it, his face turned toward the ground so it would not reflect light. He heard someone running past him in the darkness, someone whose breath was not only labored but desperate and used up and driven by fear rather than a need for oxygen.
When he thought that perhaps his wait was over, that the pursuers of the fleeing man had given up and gone away, allowing him to return to his house with the treasure he had dug out of the desert floor, he heard a sound he knew only too well. It was the pleading lament of someone who had no hope, not unlike that of an animal caught in a steel trap or a new inmate, a fish, just off the bus at Sugar Land Pen, going into his first night of lockdown with four or five mainline cons waiting for him in the shower room.
The pursuers had dragged the second fleeing man from behind a tangle of deadwood and tumbleweed that had wedged in a collapsed corral that dog-food contractors had once used to pen mustangs. The fugitive was barefoot and blood-streaked and terrified, his shirt hanging in rags on the pencil lines that were his ribs, a manacle on one wrist, a brief length of cable swinging loosely from it.
“¿Dónde está?” a voice said.
“What you mean you don’t know? Tú sabes.”
“No, hombre. No sé nada.”
“¿Para dónde se fue?”
“He didn’t tell me where he went.”
“¿Es la verdad?”
“Claro que sí.”
“You don’t know if you speak Spanish or English, you’ve sold out to so many people. You are a very bad policeman.”
“Estás mintiendo, chico. Pobrecito.”
“Tengo familia, señor. Por favor. Soy un obrero, como usted. I’m just like you, a worker. I got to take care of my family. Hear me, man. I know people who can make you rich.”
For the next fifteen minutes, Danny Boy Lorca tried to shut out the sounds that came from the mouth of the man who wore the manacle and length of severed cable on one wrist. He tried to shrink himself inside his own skin, to squeeze all light and sensation and awareness from his mind, to become a black dot that could drift away on the wind and re-form later as a shadow that would eventually become flesh and blood again. Maybe one day he would forget the fear that caused him to stop being who he was; maybe he would meet the man he chose not to help and be forgiven by him and hence become capable of forgiving himself. When all those things happened, he might even forget what his fellow human beings were capable of doing.
When the screams of the tormented man finally softened and died and were swallowed by the wind, Danny Boy raised his head above a rock and gazed down the incline where the tangle of tumbleweed and deadwood partially obscured the handiwork of the armed men. The wind was laced with grit and rain that looked like splinters of glass. When lightning rippled across the sky, Danny Boy saw the armed men in detail.
Five of them could have been pulled at random from any jail across the border. But it was the leader who made a cold vapor wrap itself around Danny Boy’s heart. He was taller than the others and stood out for many reasons; in fact, the incongruities in his appearance only added to the darkness of his persona. His body was not stitched with scars or chained with Gothic-letter and swastika and death’s-head tats. Nor was his head shaved into a bullet or his mouth surrounded by a circle of carefully trimmed beard. Nor did he wear lizard-skin boots that were plated on the heels and tips. His running shoes looked fresh out of the box; his navy blue sweatpants had a red stripe down each leg, similar to a design a nineteenth-century Mexican cavalry officer might wear. His skin was clean, his chest flat, the nipples no bigger than dimes, his shoulders wide, his arms like pipe stems, his pubic hair showing just above the white cord that held up his pants. An inverted M16 was cross-strapped across his bare back; a canteen hung at his side from a web belt, and a hatchet and a long thin knife of the kind that was used to dress wild game. The man leaned over and speared something with the tip of the knife and lifted it in the air, examining it against the lights flashing in the clouds. He cinched the object with a lanyard and tied it to his belt, letting it drip down his leg.
Then Danny Boy saw the leader freeze, as though he had just smelled an invasive odor on the wind. He turned toward Danny Boy’s hiding place and stared up the incline. “¿Quién está en la oscuridad?” he said.
Danny Boy shrank down onto the ground, the rocks cutting into his knees and the heels of his hands.
“You see something up there?” one of the other men said.
But the leader did not speak, in either Spanish or English.
“It’s just the wind. There’s nothing out here. The wind plays tricks,” the first man said.
“¿Ahora para dónde vamos?” another man said.
The leader waited a long time to answer. “¿Dónde vive La Magdalena?” he asked.
“Don’t fuck with that woman, Krill. Bad luck, man.”
But the leader, whose nickname was Krill, did not reply. A moment that could have been a thousand years passed; then Danny Boy heard the six men begin walking back down through the riverbed toward the distant mountains from which they had come, their tracks cracking the clay and braiding together in long serpentine lines. After they were out of sight, Danny Boy stood up and looked down at their bloody handiwork, scattered across the ground in pieces, glimmering in the rain.
At noon she was drinking a cup of coffee at her office window when she saw Danny Boy Lorca stumbling down the street toward the department, bent at the torso as though waging war against invisible forces, a piece of newspaper matting against his chest before it flapped loose and scudded across the intersection. When Danny Boy tripped on the curb and fell hard on one knee, then fell again when he tried to pick himself up, Pam Tibbs set down her coffee cup and went outside, the wind blowing lines in her hair. She bent down, her breasts hanging heavy against her shirt, and lifted him to his feet and walked him inside.
“I messed myself. I got to get in the shower,” he said.
“You know where it is,” she said.
“They killed a man.”
She didn’t seem to hear what he had said. She glanced at the cast-iron spiral of steps that led upstairs to the jail. “Can you make it by yourself?”
“I ain’t drunk. I was this morning, but I ain’t now. The guy in charge, I remember his name.” Danny Boy closed his eyes and opened them again. “I think I do.”
“I’ll be upstairs in a minute and open the cell.”
“I hid all the time they was doing it.”
“I hid behind a big rock. Maybe for fifteen minutes. He was screaming all the while.”
She nodded, her expression neutral. Danny Boy’s eyes were scorched with hangover, his mouth white at the corners with dried mucus, his breath dense and sedimentary, like a load of fruit that had been dumped down a stone well. He waited, although she didn’t know for what. Was it absolution? “Don’t slip on the steps,” she said.
Feast Day of Fools by James Lee Burke / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes