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James Lee Burke

A Morning for Flamingos

The fourth book in the Robicheaux series, 1990

To Martin and Jennie Bush


We parked the car in front of the parish jail and listened to the rain beat on the roof. The sky was black, the windows fogged with humidity, and white veins of lightning pulsated in the bank of thunderheads out on the Gulf.

"Tante Lemon's going to be waiting for you," Lester Benoit, the driver, said. He was, like me, a plainclothes detective with the sheriff's department. He wore sideburns and a mustache, and had his hair curled and styled in Lafayette. Each year he arranged to take his vacation during the winter in Miami Beach so that he would have a year-round tan, and each year he bought whatever clothes people were wearing there. Even though he had spent his whole life in New Iberia, except for time in the service, he always looked as if he had just stepped off a plane from somewhere else.

"You don't want to see her, do you?" he said, and grinned.


"We can go in the side door and bring them down the back elevator. She won't even know we've been there."

"It's all right," I said.

"It's not me that's got the problem. If you don't feel good about it, you should have asked off the assignment. What's the big deal, anyway?"

"It's not a big deal."

"Then blow her off. She's an old nigger."

"She says Tee Beau didn't do it. She says he was at her house, helping her shell crawfish, the night that guy got killed."

"Come on, Dave. You think she's not going to lie to save her grandson?"


"You damn straight, maybe." Then he looked off in the direction of the park on Bayou Teche. "It's too bad the fireworks got rained on. My ex was taking the kids to it. Happens every year. I got to get out of this place." His face looked wan in the glow of the streetlight through the rain-streaked window. His window was cracked at the top to let out his cigarette smoke.

"Let's do it," I said.

"Give it a minute. I don't want to drive in wet clothes all the way up there."

"It's not going to let up."

"I'll finish my cigarette and we'll see. I don't like being wet. Hey, tell me on the square, Dave, is it delivering Tee Beau that bothers you, or do we have some other kind of concerns here?" The streetlight made shadows like rivulets of rain on his face.

"Have you ever been to one?" I asked.

"I never had to."

"Would you go?"

"I figure the guy sitting in that chair knew the rules."

"Would you go?"

"Yeah, I would." He turned his head and looked boldly at my face.

"It can be an expensive experience."

"But they all knew the rules. Right? You snuff somebody in the state of Louisiana, you get treated to some serious electroshock therapy."

"Tell me the name of one rich man the state's burned. Or any state, for that matter."

"Sorry. I'm not broken up about these guys. You think Jimmie Lee Boggs should have gotten life? Would you like him back around here on parole after ten and a half?"

"No, I wouldn't."

"I didn't think so. I'll tell you another thing. If that guy tries anything on me, I'll park one in his mouth. Then I'll find his mother and describe it to her on her deathbed. How's that sound?"

"I'm going in now. You want to come?"

"She's going to be waiting," he said, and grinned again.

She was. In a drenched print-cotton dress, sunfaded and colorless from repeated washings, that clung to her bony frame like wet tissue paper. Her mulatto hair looked like a tangle of gray-gold wire, her high-yellow skin as though it were spotted with brown dimes. She sat alone on a wood bench next to a holding cell, next to the elevator from which her grandson, Tee Beau Latiolais, whom she had raised by herself, would emerge in a few minutes with Jimmie Lee Boggs, both of them manacled in waist and leg chains. Her blue-green eyes were covered with cataracts, but they never left the side of my face.

She had worked in one of Hattie Fontenot's cribs on Railroad Avenue in the 1940s; then she'd spent a year in the women's penitentiary for stabbing a white man through the shoulder after he beat her up. Later she worked in a laundry and did housework for twenty dollars a week, which was the standard full-time salary for any Negro in South Louisiana, wherever he or she worked, well into the 1960s. Tante Lemon's daughter gave birth prematurely to a baby that was so small it fitted into the shoes box she hid it in before she put it in the bottom of a trash barrel. Tante Lemon heard the child's cries when she went out to use the privy the next morning. She raised Tee Beau as her own, fed him cush-cush with a spoon to make him strong, and tied a dime around his neck with a string to keep illness from traveling down his throat. They lived in an unpainted shack whose gallery had totally collapsed, so that the steps looked as if they led into a gaping, broken mouth, in an area people called nigger town. Each spring my father, who was a commercial trapper and fisherman, hired her to shell crawfish for him, though he could scarcely afford her meager salary. Whenever he caught mullet or gar in his nets, he dressed it and dropped it by her house.

"I ain't eating that, me," he would say to me, as though he owed an explanation for being charitable.

I could hear the elevator coming down. A uniformed jailer at a small desk was finishing the paperwork on the transfer of the prisoners from the parish jail to Angola.

"Mr. Dave," Tante Lemon said.

"Tell them up there they already been fed," the jailer said. "There ain't anything wrong with them, either. The doctor checked out both of them."

"Mr. Dave," she said again. Her voice was low, as though she were speaking in church.

"I can't help, Tante Lemon," I said.

"He was at my little house. He didn't kill no redbone," she said.

"Somebody's going to take her home," the jailer said.

"I told all them people, Mr. Dave. They ain't listen to me. What for they gonna listen an old nigger woman worked Miz Hattie's crib? That's what they say. Old nigger putain lyin' for Tee Beau."

"His lawyer's going to appeal. There are a lot of things that can be done yet," I said. I kept waiting for the elevator doors to open.

"They gonna electrocute that boy," she said.

"Tante Lemon, I can't do anything about it," I said.

Her eyes wouldn't leave my face. They were small and wet and unblinking, like a bird's.

I saw Lester smiling to himself.

"A car's going to take you home," the jailer said to her.

"What for I goin' home, me? Be home by myself in my little house?" she answered.

"You fix something hot, you get out of them wet clothes," the jailer said. "Then tomorrow you talk to Tee Beau's lawyer, like Mr. Dave says."

"Mr. Dave know better," she said. "They gonna burn that little boy, and he ain't done nothing wrong. That redbone pick on him, make fun of him in front of people, work him so hard he couldn't eat when he got home. I fix chicken and rice, everything nice, just the way he like it. He sit down all dirty at the table and stare at it, put it in his mouth like it ain't nothing but a bunch of dry bean. I tell him go wash his face and arm, then he gonna eat. But he say, 'I tired, Gran'maman. I cain't eat when I tired.' I say, 'Tomorrow Sunday, you gonna sleep tomorrow, you, then you gonna eat.' He say, 'He comin' for me in the morning. We got them field to cut.'

"Where everybody when that little boy need he'p?" she said. "When that redbone roll up a newspaper and swat him like he's a cat? Where them police, them lawyer then?"

"I'll come over to your house tomorrow, Tante Lemon," I promised.

Lester lit a cigarette and smiled up into the smoke. I heard the elevator motor stop; then the door slid open and two uniformed sheriff's deputies walked Tee Beau Latiolais and Jimmie Lee Boggs out in chains. They were dressed in street clothes for the trip up to Angola. Tee Beau wore a shiny sports coat the color of tin, baggy purple pants, and a black shirt with the collar flattened out on the coat. He was twenty-five, but he looked like a child in adult clothes, like you could pick him up around the waist as you would a pillow slip full of sticks. Unlike his grandmother's, his skin was black, his eyes brown, too big for his small face, so that he looked frightened even when he wasn't. Someone in the jail had cut his hair but had not shaved the neck, leaving a black wiry line low on the back of his neck that looked like dirt.