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Chapter Eleven

Alma Badeaux wiped her hands on the bottom of her apron, emblazoned with “Kiss the Cook or Else.” She’d just finished preparing her chicken stew in her favorite pot and was studying the long driveway from the road as if she could make Tully and her grandchildren materialize sooner.

Tully and the kids hadn’t come for a visit since the holidays, but she understood how busy everyone was. Something had changed in those sixty days, though, which made her anxious to spot Tully’s car. She was so intent on seeing the white Land Rover that she almost didn’t recognize the driver of a Ford Explorer.

Though Bailey was usually reluctant to spend time in the small town of Montegut, she fell easily into Alma’s arms.

“We thought we’d surprise you by being early for a change, instead of three hours late,” Tully said when it was her turn to hug Alma.

“Your father’s going to be upset he isn’t here to meet you.”

When Gaston came home with an ice chest of jumbo shrimp they were having for lunch the next day, they repeated the whole exchange of hugs. Alma didn’t get Tully alone until the dishes were done and the kids were in bed.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s not too late for you to go to detective school, you know,” Tully said. Since they were sitting outside, she took out her pack of cigarettes and lit one.

Just as quickly Alma snatched it away and put it out. “You don’t need to imitate a chimney to tell me about what’s going on.”

Tully laughed before she leaned forward and rested her elbows on the tops of her legs. Though she left out the part about how she found out Jessica was cheating, she did tell Alma why they were separating.

“My mama always preached to me about how God closed some doors in our lives only to open certain others,” Alma said. “You might take that message to heart, my love. Just remember to look for those new doors.”

“I won’t miss them.” Tully kissed her mother’s cheek. “Now go on inside and get to bed.” That was the only way she’d get to smoke the cigarette she craved.

Later, sitting on her father’s dock across the road from the house, she propped her feet against the hull of the Alma Mae. The old boat creaked as it gently bobbed with the outgoing tide, but the cypress it was constructed of felt solid.

“When I was little—” The sudden sound of Bailey’s voice scared Tully so badly she fell out of her chair. “Sorry.”

Tully watched her cigarette roll off the edge of the dock and figured she was the victim of a conspiracy. “You’re supposed to be in bed, not crossing the highway by yourself.” She straightened her lawn chair and unfolded another for Bailey so they could sit side by side. “You were saying?”

“I remember you holding me when Granddad took us out fishing. You told me stories about the stuff that lived in the water and how, if I looked hard enough, I’d see mermaids.” Bailey sat and expelled a long sigh. “They were only dolphins.”

“But wasn’t it nice to pretend, just for a little while, that mermaids existed? Bailey Bean, I told you things like that to fire your imagination. You might not think it’s important, but having a good one can make you a success at whatever you do. I want you to find a little of that imagination you had when you were small enough for me to hold.” She tugged their chairs even closer and put her arm around Bailey. “Life is hard enough. You need to have a little fun and just take some things on faith.”

“Is that why you’re out here, trying to find your faith?”

Tully thought maybe Bailey’s question showed she missed times like this with her mom.

“I’m out here trying to relive my youth, thank you very much. Those days when I stepped off this boat and could see my feet.” She patted her stomach to finish the joke.

“Stop making fun of yourself to make me feel better.” Bailey bumped shoulders with her and stayed close. “Are you going to tell me what exactly happened with Mama?”

“Why do you really have to know?” Tully held tight when Bailey started to turn away. “I’m not trying to blow you off, honey. But it’s like you’re looking for a reason to hate your mother and want me to hand you one.”

“I’d’ve thought you’d jump at the chance.”

“Then I’m sorry for giving you that impression. I may not want to live with your mom, but I’d never go out of my way for you guys to hate her.” She paused to try and erase the mental image of Kara Nicolas with Jessica. “If I did, I’d be cheating you of an important relationship, even though it doesn’t seem like that right now.”

A faint splash came from the other side of the boat, and Tully pulled Bailey up to investigate. Something seemed to be trying to break free of the water.

“What is it?” Bailey asked.

“I need to get you out here more often.” Tully retrieved something out of one of the storage boxes on the boat. “Every Cajun kid can spot shrimp feeding on the surface just from the noise.”

With balance Bailey didn’t realize Tully had, she stood on the rail of the boat with a cast net in her hand. Completely open, the circle of net was about eight feet across, with a row of weights tied along the bottom. She held the top rope in one hand and grabbed just a bit of the bottom with her other. Bailey thought about holding Tully when she started swaying, but she was just building momentum for her throw. When she released the net, it resembled a large cobweb heading for the water.

It hit with a small splash, and Tully yanked on the rope to make the weights come together and close the bottom. She dumped out a small bucketful of shrimp captured inside. “Big enough for bait if you want to go fishing with me,” she offered.

“Can I try? Will you teach me, I mean?” Bailey asked, referring to the cast net.

It was late before she finally got the hang of releasing the net so that it would open and not just hit the water and sink. The shrimp had fled by then, but it didn’t matter. As they walked back to the house with the shrimp Tully had caught, Bailey basked in the attention her mom had paid her, which beat the hell out of catching any bait.

 

They drove back early on Sunday morning loaded with fresh fish and shrimp Alma had packed. The kids hadn’t had the heart to tell their grandmother Tully would probably just freeze the stuff since she didn’t know how to cook.

They were kidding about her lack of culinary skills as they drove up to their house, and Tully threw Ralph the keys to unlock the door while she walked to the mailbox. When Bailey screamed, Tully dropped the mail and ran to the back door.

“Mom, we’ve been robbed.”

The dining room table and chairs were gone, as were a few more pieces of furniture the kids always remembered being in the house. They were all family heirlooms that Jessica had inherited from her favorite grandmother.

“More like your mama coming by for her stuff, babe.” Hands on her thighs, Tully was bent over trying to catch her breath. “This gives us a good excuse to go out and eat.”

Ralph stood next to his sister, his eyes riveted to the empty spot where the table had been. “I guess she was serious about not coming back.”

“Buddy, when she gets a new place, she’ll need all this stuff you’re missing to make it feel like home.”

As soon as the words left Tully’s mouth, Ralph ran to his room and slammed the door.

“What?” she asked when Bailey shook her head and rolled her eyes.

“Thank God you aren’t this clueless at work or we’d starve. Saying that to him is like packing our bags and shipping us off.”

When Tully tried to defend herself, Bailey held her hands up. “I know you won’t send us away, but Ralph obviously doesn’t, so I suggest damage control.”

It took Tully over an hour to get Ralph to the same level of enlightenment as Bailey, and when she stepped out into the hall she smelled dinner. If Bailey cooked this well, maybe the kid was correct that she was totally clueless. Tully heard conversation and was surprised to enter the kitchen and find Libby not only talking to Bailey, but also cooking. “So coffee isn’t your only specialty, huh?”

“Bailey said it’d be all right.” Libby stopped chopping broccoli to answer.

“Then Bailey gets a raise in her allowance for being so astute. Were you out looking for a downtrodden family to cook for?” Tully popped a broccoli floret into her mouth.

“I was making a delivery for Josephine, and your ice chest of fish inspired me,” Libby retorted. “I really am sorry if I’m intruding. My kitchen is so tiny this was a treat for me.”

“You’re not intruding, and you’re more than welcome to cook for us whenever the mood strikes you.” Another piece of broccoli disappeared before Libby moved the cutting board out of Tully’s reach.

“Bailey mentioned another table outside.” Libby pointed to the empty space, having heard the story earlier.

Considering it was her house, Tully took the dismissal well and called Ralph to help her wipe down the lawn furniture. It was a little warm outside, but everyone was too busy enjoying the broiled fish topped with shrimp cream sauce to complain about the heat.

Without thought at the end of dinner, Tully produced the pack of cigarettes from her shirt pocket and was about to light up when Libby blew out her match and said, “I’ll make a bet with you.”

“Why do I feel this cigarette isn’t in my future?”

Libby laughed and moved closer to nab the cigarette. “Not necessarily. If you can walk around the block at a fairly good pace and not cough once, it’s all yours.”

“A block?” Tully snapped her fingers. “That should be a cinch.”

After telling the kids where they were going, Tully bowed and let Libby walk ahead of her. They turned left at the end of the drive, wanting to enjoy the slight breeze that was keeping the mosquitoes at bay. Tully started wheezing before they reached the corner, and at the stop sign she started coughing.

Libby stopped and waited until the fit subsided, then pointed back to the house. Not only had they walked less than a block, they weren’t even four houses from where they’d started. “Learn something, Counselor?”

“This street seems a lot shorter from behind the wheel of my car,” Tully said, knowing she sounded rather pathetic.

Libby tugged on her hand to get her moving again. “I tell you what. I’m going to return the favor of you giving me a job.”

“How’s that?” Tully was enjoying the hand in hers more than the walk.

“By helping you quit smoking, as well as a few other things.”

Tully almost stopped moving. “Other things?”

“A little exercise isn’t going to kill you, and you can start by helping me move next weekend.”

“Move you? Don’t you have a gaggle of friends lined up dying to help out?”

Libby tugged on her hand again and quickened their pace. “I don’t have a gaggle of anything, but I don’t want you to feel obligated.”

“Never mind about that.” Tully had broken a slight sweat, but she felt good. “Where are you moving to?”

“I’ve got it narrowed down to a couple of places. I just need to make a decision.”

Tully noticed that something in Libby’s voice sounded a little off. “How many classes do you have tomorrow?”

They were nearing the house again, and turning in meant their night was ending. “Two in the morning, then nothing until tomorrow night. Why?”

“I want to go see which place would be the easiest to move you into,” Tully said as they passed her driveway. “Another block?”

“Can we talk about civil litigation?”

“Can I smoke while we do?”

The glare Libby shot her way made her laugh.

“Kidding.” Tully put her free hand up.

They walked around the block four times before they’d finished their conversation, then Tully put Libby in her car for the night. “Call me when you’re done, and I’ll swing by school and pick you up.”

“You’re responsible for two people now, Tully. You don’t need to take on any more.”

Tully laughed and bent closer to the open car window. “Remind me to invite you the next time I go visit my mother. She’ll be happy to explain responsibility until you understand what it is.”

“What is it?”

“Some land on your doorstep.” She pointed to the files on the seat pertaining to the Hebert case. “We’re responsible for getting those people justice for their little girl. Then there’s responsibility you seek.” Tully turned and pointed to the house. “The kids I sought. Maybe I haven’t done such a bang-up job up to now, but they’re my responsibility.”

Libby leaned forward and rested her head on the steering wheel. “Where does that leave me?”

“In neither category.”

“Is that good or bad?”

Tully laughed again and suddenly realized how long it had been since she’d felt like this. Talking to Libby made her feel young, happy, like what she had to say mattered. The most absurd thing of all was that she felt desirable to another person, but she wasn’t about to dwell on that lest she lose the friendship she shared with Libby.

“You ask so many questions that it’s a good thing you’re going to law school. You’re in neither category because you didn’t land on my doorstep and I didn’t seek you out. You’re someone I want to help simply because I want to, Libby, but only if it’s agreeable to you.”

“It’s so very agreeable,” was the soft reply. “And it makes me feel like someone cares about me. I haven’t had that in a long time.”

The next morning the first thing Tully noticed was the smell of brewing coffee.

The first thing Bailey noticed when she handed her a cup was that the ashtray was empty.

“Thank God Mama didn’t take the couch,” Bailey said before turning and heading for the stairs.

By the time they were all showered, dressed and ready to go, Tully would’ve traded her car for a cigarette. She fidgeted so much that on their way to school Bailey called Roxanne and sent her out for some nicotine patches.

“Make sure you slap one on her the minute she gets there,” Bailey instructed. “Or someone might sue her for crabbiness before lunch.”

“Funny girl,” Tully said. She pulled up and parked the car, wanting to walk them to the gate on their first day. “I’m not going to embarrass you if I tag along for a bit, am I?”

“You’re not going to cry, are you?” Bailey asked in a teasing tone.

“I’ll try to hold myself in check.”

They were halfway there when Tully heard someone call her name and turned to find Libby. “Hey, guys, I came to wish you luck and bring you lunch.” She held up two bags and joined the laughter when Tully snapped her fingers at having forgotten.

“Thanks, Libby. And don’t worry, Mom. We would’ve hit you up for some cash,” Ralph said. “But this is going to be better.” He held up his bag.

“Good luck, buddy, and call me if you need anything.” Tully gave him a hug, but made sure it didn’t last too long. “You too, Bailey Bean. Just remember one thing, okay?”

“To be good?”

“To have fun, baby girl. I bet some kid in there is waiting for a new friend today.”

“You make me sound lame.”

Even Tully could sense that Bailey was nervous. “No one this beautiful, smart, and outgoing can be lame. I’ve known that about you all your life, and today, so will the rest of the world.”

With a piercing gaze that begged for reassurance, Bailey stepped closer. “Why do you think so?”

“Find your niche, darlin’, and you find your stride. Once you do, nothing can stop you.” Tully pivoted her so they were facing the front of the school. “In there’s your niche, and the rest is up to you, but I have faith in you.”

“Thanks, Mom.” Bailey initiated the hug this time.

“Anytime.” Tully handed them some money anyway and waved one last time before she mock-reprimanded Libby. “And what are you doing skipping class, young lady?”

“I finished my first and the second got cancelled, so no lectures, thank you.”

“Thanks for remembering their lunches. You may spoil them.”

“Your kids are easy to spoil, so it wasn’t any trouble. Do you still want to go apartment hunting with me?”

“If you don’t mind being constantly interrupted by Roxanne and her barrage of phone calls, I’d love to.”

“If you’re busy—”

“I’m kidding, and if Roxanne needs me she won’t hesitate to call, believe me. Besides, I cleared my schedule to go with you this morning.” Tully opened the passenger side and waved her into the vehicle. “Where to first?”

In the first apartment a set of pipes came up through the floor in the corner of the bedroom and extended into the place upstairs. While they stood there a rat climbed one of the pipes as if he often used the water main as his personal stairwell.

“How about we try the next place?” Tully suggested.

After she shivered, Libby nodded.

They looked at four places, and Tully found something wrong with all of them, with good reason.

Sitting together outside the last place, Libby just stared out the window, appearing depressed. “I know what you’re going to say,” she told Tully.

“You do? That the Cubs have a decent shot at the pennant next year? You should be on the psychic hotline.” Tully put her hand to her chest and tried to look shocked.

“Stop it.” Laughing, Libby slapped her arm. “You were going to tell me I need to look in a higher price range. I know these places are pathetic, but they’re all I can afford right now.” Before Tully could even think to offer, she added, “And you’re not giving me a raise. You’re paying me way too much now for the amount of work I do.”

“Okay, I’m not giving you a raise, Scouts’ honor.” Tully felt almost docile as she answered, her fingers up in the correct position to make a Scout oath.

“You’re not?”

“You just told me not to.”

“Good.” The agreement sounded less than enthusiastic.

“I want you to look at one more place. Think you can handle it? I swear it won’t have anywhere near the number of roaches we saw at the last place when I switched the lights on.”

“You aren’t going to make the landlord lie about the rent, are you?”

Instead of answering, Tully started the engine and took a call from Roxanne, who asked her a number of questions. As they neared their destination, Tully gave her assistant the names of the people she needed appointments with.

“Did you forget something?” Libby asked when Tully stopped the car.

“I’m highly organized, so I seldom forget anything,” Tully joked. “Take a walk?”

After they entered the gate at the side of the house, Tully circled the pool and paused by the deep end.

“Did you want to take a swim break?” Libby asked.

“You may be doing just that if you don’t get over here. Before you say no, I want you to look at the pool house.” Tully opened the door to a large open area with a terra-cotta tile floor. At one end was a bedroom and bath, at the other, a kitchen. The small place was clean, full of light, and tastefully decorated.

“We started with a pool house that morphed into a guesthouse, that eventually Jessica wanted to convert into a home office,” Tully explained. She opened the refrigerator to an assortment of beer and sodas. “I think it’s a hell of a lot better than all those places we saw today.”

“This is generous…” Libby stood in the middle of the open space, light coming in from the wall of glass that faced the pool. “I love it. Are you sure?”

“The only question is—do we store your furniture or all this stuff?”

“It’s a deal only if you’ll tell me if it becomes a problem.” Libby imitated Tully by putting up her finger as if she were getting ready to rattle off a list. “You also have to promise to take a walk with me when you have time, and let me pay rent.”

“Okay to the problem and the walks, but no deal on the rent. Come on, Libby, don’t argue with me. I’m an attorney who thrives on arguing, and you know that the fewer expenses you have now, the quicker you’ll be debt-free after law school. Besides, it’s a pile of bricks in my yard, and maybe you’ll get the urge to cook a few more meals for me and the kids.”

The small house was anything but a pile of bricks, and Libby took the hand Tully offered. “Deal, then.”

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