Due Process

Grace’s pleated paper fan rustles.   Beside her, Dance is humming, one hand describing circles on the beat.  A few couples are still on the floor even with canned music, reluctant to let the evening end. She’s pleased to see that Coral and Tee Pom are among them, and Coral’s smiling.

“Hey, hey, Michel my love!” sings out a cracked old woman’s voice among the faces. Grace knows the man who Maman Cardoza is greeting; but the smuggler’s face is unusually somber as he comes into the room. He’s a wizened sun-leathered little old swamper, and tonight he’s in muddy camos, not one of his fancy fais-do-do suits. “Hey, Maman,” he say, holding out his hand. He speaks to her in Spanish as comfortably as he spoke Cajun French to some of the older guys by the door when he came in.

Maman Cardoza frowns impressively and speaks aside to her son in a rattle of consonants. Bert Vargas nods to his mother, then his buddy Ricardo murmurs agreement, and they pick up lamps and a compressor from the heap of gear at one side of the stage, and they go outside with it.

Dance stops humming.  He goes still, head tilted as if he’s listening to something.

Tee Pom abruptly stops dancing with Coral. He gestures mildly for her to have a seat, and kisses her. Then he goes over to the knot of people, his face blank and relaxed, which is the deputy at his most dangerous.  Michel speaks to him with a gesture toward the door, and then both men are crossing the floor to Dance and Grace.

Michel bows to Grace, and then he shakes Dance’s hand lightly. “Will you look at all these pretty ladies! My my!  I hate ruining a good party, I surely do.”

“What’s the trouble?” Grace asks.

Michel shakes his head, pointing a thumb over his shoulder. “Mister Dance, I think maybeso you and Tee Pom ain’t goan’ like what we brung round in my truck. Me and my boys, you know, we heard a few things, then we found this guy on the bayou road by the dog kennels.”

Grace isn’t sure what signal gets passed, but Dance’s husband Drin is drifting into range without a word said.

“Creepy, like. I mean, we know it ain’t Dance, first time we saw him, but he do look like–”

Tee Pom looks at Michel and says a few words in Spanish, and he gets a nod from the old guy. “Where’s your boys, Michel? Don’t tell me you brought in this crazy man by yourself?”

Michel gives a wide grin. “Dobro and Sneakers, they sittin’ on him with a few guns. Got him all wrapped up in duct tape.”

Grace has seen Michel’s boys get busy on bug raids. She’s seen them coolly choosing for range, plucking one gun and then another out of the welded racks slung inside the truck bed walls. They wrestle gators for weekend shows in town, and work traplines on weekdays. Michel’s grand-daughter taught Tangerine how to shoot at competition-level.  So nobody gets too fussy about all the firepower racked in their trucks. Tee Pom has been known to mutter against Michel and his Wile E. Coyote smuggler’s tricks.  Michel’s bunch think it’s funny as hell when they get to bring in something and report to Tee Pom because they’re on the same damn side, for once.

“You wanna bet that your buddy Hyphen can get the drop on those boys, even with a serious duct-tape handicap?” Tee Pom says to Dance.

“Don’t know, if he’s still pinned in human form,” Dance says.

“Not in the shape he in, all drunk off his mind. You hear him, all his cussin’ and yellin’?”

Dance tilts his head again, as if he is listening to something, half-distracted.

“You ain’t gonna have Emma get out them cable ties again, are you?” Tee Pom says, exasperated.

“You could bring along your handcuffs, if you like,” Dance says, smiling a little.

“For all the good it’ll do me, huh?”

Michel puts out one hand gently, touching Dance’s arm. “You and Tee Pom, let me know when you done with that piece of merde, then I take you down and show you where we caught him trying to lay off that poor lil girl’s body. He was pro’ly going to weigh her down in the fastest current in the Rainette,” Michel says, with a wave of his hand, the expert smuggler disgusted by such amateurish efforts. “You ever heard something so dumb?”

What?” Tee Pom hisses.

“One of them hungry street gals from NOLA, from the look of her poor lil feet,” Michel says. He waves again. “Don’ worry, we took pictures before we lifted her out. She’s over at the doctor’s clinic, waiting for a look-see. All needle tracks up her arms, sad lil thing.”

Oh shit,” Tee Pom growls. Then, “And stop grinning like that, Dance, I don’t need that right now, I purely don’t.”

He’s right. It really isn’t a smile.  It reminds you about the fangs in there. Grace looks away. She knows and likes Dance too well to watch him like this. She doesn’t like seeing any of her friends gear up for bug battles.

“I think you’ll want Preacher to sit in with you on questioning this one,” Drin says. “If he’s the one we think–”

“Right.”  Tee Pom gives him a wild-eyed look, and keeps walking toward the door. He moves stiffly, which means he’s already so mad he can hardly see straight.

“Tee Pom,” Drin says gently, “This man is innocent until proven guilty.”

“Oh yeah, due process. … Let’s get started before some damn fool goes smarting off out there.”  The deputy charges out towards the truck lights.

It’s clear that even if the gentleman in restraints managed to get himself upright, he’d have trouble getting through the crowd of gawkers. Currently his feet are hanging awkwardly over the end of the truck bed—the truck’s net tailgate has got tossed aside—and he’s laying on his back making a lot of noise.

Dobro is holding their prisoner’s wallet in his big crooked left fist and some sort of machine pistol in his right fist.  Tee Pom accepts the wallet, goes through it in a leisurely, thorough way. Sneakers yanks over a backpack, gesturing, and Tee Pom looks that over too. He gets that scary still look on his face when he opens a baggie with pictures in it, and he doesn’t let anybody see what’s in the pictures before he puts the baggie back in the backpack. Tee Pom just says, “You ready to swear to the chain of custody on that thing? It never left left your control?”

Dobro stutters a word or two, shrugs, and fidgets with his pistol instead.

Sneakers frowns at his brother, then at Tee Pom. “Wanda kep’ a good eye on it for us. You could swear her in. She give it up just now, you saw her walk off, she want a soda.”

Tee Pom nods. “Wanda’s good. She speaks up fine. Plus, she ain’t got your sorta court records to show off.”

Sneakers just laughs. He is sitting comfortably on the truckbed sidewall, a shotgun in one hand and a large flare pistol in the other.  He’s found it effective against certain sorts of bugs.

The prisoner begins speaking in a hoarse, exhausted voice, switching into more than one language.  Grace thinks that only one person there may have a hope of understanding him. Repeating himself, over and over, slurred.

“Some of this language right now–I think it may be Russian?” she says.

“Yes, he’s speaking Mat. It’s a very profane slang. Oh, the surprise,” Emma says, appearing out of nowhere.  She strokes the tip of Dance’s tail.

Drin gives her a flat look. “Something about finding girls before they die.”

“Yeah,” she says grimly.

Dance nods. “In Korean too.” He steps up to the end of the truck, with his tail rolling in agitated tight little sidewinder loops the way it does when he’s on a raid, poised to snap up in any direction. He speaks in a language that sounds quite different from Hyphen. Even to strangers who don’t understand any of it, it’s perfectly clear that the prisoner was using street slang and Dance is an educated man using a cool, crisp, precise scholarly diction.  It’s as surprising out here as hearing a Brit using the Queen’s received English.

Hyphen practically levitates in place, jackknifing off the end of the truck and landing balanced on his feet in the dirt. He’s shouting, almost vomiting words, with his face going violently red and his shoulder muscles straining in the duct tape bonds. He staggers from one foot to the other, teetering about awkwardly with his shins taped together.

“He wants somebody to find where two women are being held prisoner by bug troops.  He is saying this might be in a shed or outbuilding near boats near that kennel on the bayou road.”

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