by Nat Burns
Vandalism and violence at Fortune Farm have pulled investigator Denni Hope home to Southern Louisiana. Her insistent ex-girlfriend, Patty Price, expects Denni to get to the bottom of an endless nightmare of trouble. For Denni, it means watching Patty with Yolanda Elliott, the creepy, conniving lowlife who stole Patty away.
Denni had hoped Patty was exaggerating, but the chaos at the farm borders on evil. The Price family is well-loved but nothing has been right since the death of Patty’s mother. A war-crazy neighbor and a business competitor are just the beginning of the list of suspects.
But just as Denni feels she’s making progress, Yolanda asks for help from an old friend of her own: police officer Bonita Corcaran. The move is so typical of Yolanda—it’s an already difficult situation, but now Denni must deal with the most attractive, seductive woman she has ever met.
Lambda Literary Review
Fun novel full of romantic intrigue... Denni is a trained insurance investigator, and is quite willing to use her skills to help Patty. She is not sure, however, how she'll feel about seeing Patty with Yolanda Elliott, the woman Patty left her for. Told in the first person by Denni, Family Issue is full of Denni's reflections on the changes to Brethren, Louisiana, as well as the lack of changes.
More Praise for Nat Burns
Golden Crown Literary Awards — Winner.
Alice B. Reader Committee — Lavender Certificate for Debut Author
“I’m sorry, Mr. Anderson. You should have thought of that before you went bungee jumping with your friends while you were vacationing at Virginia Beach.”
I shifted the phone headset, then listened absently, gently rolling the wooden cylinder of a yellow pencil back and forth across the pitted maple desktop. And I sighed, bored with the worn, familiar song I was hearing. I studied my drab office walls, thinking once again that I needed to get a mural of some sort. Or, at the very least, a movie poster.
“I know, Mr. Anderson. I know. But you are supposed to be suffering the effects of whiplash. And I can’t find the physician you listed either. The one who you said would support your claims. We absolutely have to deny it.”
I paused as I fished a second pencil from the pencil cup and added it to the first. The gentle susurrus of controlled sound was a comforting counterpoint to the angry shouting coming from the phone headset. I closed my eyes, wishing I had stayed home in bed that morning.
“Yes, it is a lot of money. And my name is Denni, sir, Denni Hope. You can report me to whomever you please, but calling me those kinds of names won’t help you get approved.”
I cringed as a new volley of angry words assailed me. “Mr. Anderson. Mr. Anderson? I am ending this conversation now. If you wish to take it up with our legal representation, the contact information is at the bottom of the email and the hard copy letter that I have just sent to you. The email and letter will explain in detail why the claim was denied and all about the appeal process. Goodbye, sir.”
Taking a deep breath, I sat back in my chair and stared through the large plate glass window on the south wall of my office, watching the pedestrians moving busily on the street outside. The office work—with its ensuing confrontations—was my least favorite aspect of this job. Eyeing the desk in my peripheral vision, I grimaced at the four folders awaiting action. I was simply not in the mood to work. Period.
The on-the-fly sleuthing was the fun part, anyway, catching people in lies and deceptions. Plus the research and fact-checking, the work of coolly building a case against someone trying to steal from Alan Carter’s insurance company. But taking this kind of abuse for something the client did to himself…well, it was not fun. I glanced at the waiting folders and sighed again.
I knew I needed to get on with it, but my thoughts kept drifting to the real issue bothering me. I couldn’t shake the troubling nature of Patty’s call. I’d come back from lunch, and her message had been there waiting for me, a voice mail heralded by a red blinking light on my blocky office phone.
Examining my feelings with some wonder, I tried to put aside the warm waves engendered in my body upon hearing Patty’s voice again, even on an answering machine. Yet I was alarmed to hear a panicked note, one that I’d never heard in the five years we’d been together as a couple.
My fingers crept back to the pencils on the desktop. I studied the two rolling cylinders with a pensive gaze. Should I go? The panic in Patty’s tone frightened me. This was the troubling issue, not so much the destruction of Patty’s possessions or the fact that someone seemed to be hounding her. These problems could be dealt with, were dealt with every day in my line of work. It was that small tremble in Patty’s voice that haunted me. That tiny clue that let me know just how close Patty was to losing it.
Even more troubling was the feeling Patty’s distress provoked in me. No matter how I tried to demonize Patty because she had heartlessly left me for another, the powerful love I’d felt for her lingered. And now she needed me.
A looped-together line of preschool-aged children passed by the window and I watched their undeniable cuteness with brooding eyes.
Should I go to Louisiana and help Patty? Immerse myself anew in her world, even temporarily? Could my emotions handle the pain of being within touching distance yet not able to touch? I sat back and slowly rocked back and forth in my soft desk chair, soothing myself as my thoughts tussled like misbehaving youngsters. A huge part of me wanted to ignore or deny the plea, while the smaller, gentler side of me very badly needed to help her.
Do we ever truly get over those we have loved?
I absently pulled the headset from my head. Dew dripped from the rooftop above the window and arced in a sudden gust of wind, sparkling a brief farewell to the brilliant Virginia sunlight before merging with the shaded darkness of the sidewalk below. I took a deep breath and decided the sparkle was a good sign, an omen of full speed ahead.
I spun away from the window and stared at the thick glass door that led into the shadowy confines of the Carter Insurance Company’s main office. I saw Macy Logan, our attractive secretary extraordinaire, hunched over a keyboard busily typing. My thoughts rambled through the few short-term relationships I had been involved in since Patty. Perhaps if one of them had stuck, had become long term, I might have gotten over Patty completely by now.
“I still cannot believe he did that.” Tom Miles’s form suddenly filled the doorway. I knew exactly which case he was talking about. The bungee jumper. “It’s amazing what people think they can get away with…just boggles the mind,” he continued.
I studied him. Short and balding, he was wearing his habitual crisp business suit, his face ruddy above the tight collar of his button-down Oxford shirt and red striped tie. “I know. And he really thought he could get away with it. I finally sent him over to Legal.”
“I guess they think no one is watching.” Tom’s smile was crafty.
I smiled. “You’d think with hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake, he’d assume we’d be checking him out. I mean, we’re not just gonna give it to him, for chrissakes.”
“Do you think he’s gonna drag Legal into it?” He plopped down into the chair on the opposite side of my desk. He stared out the window behind me, his mind obviously whirring with thought.
I leaned back and nodded. “Probably. He doesn’t have a leg to stand on, though.”
“Still, it costs beyond the retainer.”
He finally looked directly at me, and I suddenly made up my mind.
“Listen, Tom…I was thinking about taking a little time off…”
He leaned forward and studied my face. “It’s about time.”
This wasn’t the response I was expecting. “What do you mean?”
“You’ve only taken sick time during the past several years, no vacation time at all. You’re long overdue.” He blinked slowly.
I sat silently thinking a few minutes, and I realized that what he said was true. I’d been so busy trying to immerse myself in my work so I wouldn’t think about the breakup that I had given up on any life beyond work. I let out a deep breath.
“How long were you thinking?”
I stared down at my desk calendar and saw a pretty much empty schedule. “How’s a week sound?”
Tom stood and smiled at me. “It sounds perfect. I’ll let Alan know. Will you clear everything with Macy?”
I nodded and indicated the folders on my desk. “I’ll wrap these up too, before I go.”
“Good. So what do you have planned?” He paused by the doorway on his way out.
I shrugged. “I think I’ll head down south and visit some friends. Nothing fancy.”
Tom nodded and moved down the hall, waving over his shoulder. “Have a good time! And if you can’t be good, just don’t get caught!”
His laughter wafted to me as his office door slid shut.
I took a deep breath and picked up the phone headset. It was time to get back to work. I felt a great sense of relief…and trepidation…now that the decision had been made.
John Clyde Price was waiting for me at the little Lake Charles, Louisiana, airport when I got in at four that Sunday evening. I had changed planes twice—a long flight very early that morning from Virginia to New Orleans, then a quick hop over to Lake Charles. Unable to relax, I had tried reading during both legs of the flight but had eventually drifted into a fitful doze. I was oddly nervous about returning to the area where Patty and I had lived. Where we had loved. I wasn’t sure how I would be received, especially by Yolanda, the woman Patty had left me for.
Patty’s brother had changed little during the four years since I’d last seen him. A tall, lanky man, he reminded me of Abraham Lincoln, even down to the untamed shock of dark hair. He was not nearly as rough in feature, though. His face actually resembled Patty’s in some small ways, and she was one of the loveliest women I had ever known. His smile was infectious, full of overlarge white teeth and shy, flirtatious charm.
“It’s good to see you, John Clyde. It’s been a while.” I let my eyes roam across his features with true fondness. We’d shared a number of good times hanging out at Bay Sally’s Bar, fishing lines in the water, beers warming between our thighs. He’d been a good ear when Patty and I started having trouble. No judgment, just quiet comfort.
“Denni,” he said, nodding his head in welcome. “It’s good to see you again.” I did notice that he’d grown thinner and there were dark circles around his eyes. His hair had begun to gray a little, mostly at the temples.
“So, what’s the deal? What do you think is going on here?” As was my wont, I got right to the point.
He sighed as he lifted my duffel into the bed of the sleek double cab pickup truck he was driving. License plates with the name of the family business, Fortune Farm, revealed that it was not his private vehicle. A good thing as the last car I’d remembered him owning had been a tiny foreign something that had barely held his own long legs much less a solid one hundred seventy pounds of insurance investigator.
“I don’t know, Denni gal. You know Mama died in the spring. Brain rupture just took her overnight.”
“I know. And I’m so, so sorry. You know I’m gonna miss Megs. She was like a mother to me too.”
If I hadn’t been looking so keenly—or if my eyes hadn’t been so professionally attuned to such cues, I might have missed it. There was a sudden subtle tautening of the skin around his mouth and eyes. What had been grief, the next minute was…what? Perhaps grief still.
“I wish y’all had let me know then. I would have liked to have come down and pay my respects,” I said quietly.
“Well, we were all fit to be tied. I thought Patty was gonna die right along with Mama.” He looked away and I felt my heart lurch in sad empathy. “That’s when it started.”
He screwed his face into a tight frown as he headed the truck west. “First it was things disappearing from Mama’s room. Things Patty had wanted to keep, like Mama’s jewelry. Then it was the tractors. The whole fleet. Someone sugared the tanks. Cost us thousands to get them fixed.”
I let loose a low whistle. Destructive behavior at its finest. “When was this?”
“I guess about a month or so after Mama passed.”
I studied the scenery as John Clyde eased the truck onto the access road that emptied onto Main Street. Lake Charles, Louisiana, had not changed much in the handful of years since I’d last been there. It was a sprawling town of hotels, restaurants and casinos. We passed through the snug little heart of downtown on our way to Route 171 south toward Brethren and I studied the people dotting the sidewalks. They looked the same as always—the natives tired and threadbare and the tourists’ faces filled with hope and a surety that they would win at the gaming tables. I saw where several long-standing mom-and-pop businesses had been ravaged by storms and also noted many more casinos than had been there four years ago.
The historic Virginia town I lived in now seemed much more affluent, the residents more polished, more metropolitan. I had forgotten how unrelenting poverty and the desperation of subsistence living could age people. But Cameron Parish was a scrapper. In 1957, Hurricane Audrey had come through and brutally wiped out most of the town’s residences and outlying businesses. The people rebuilt right away, but in 2005, Hurricane Rita paid a lingering visit and laughed at what they’d accomplished. By the time Hurricane Isaac came to visit in 2008, there was little structure or spirit left in Louisiana’s most westward parish. From what John Clyde was telling me, farms were still limping along these days and more businesses were now closed than open.
As we passed through the small downtown area, I saw some of that remaining futility in the faces of the residents. But I also saw that enduring charm that is possessed by those residing in small southern towns—a charm that isn’t often found in many, more urban, places, even certain cities in Virginia. Some people where I lived now were downright snooty. I knew these people here really would give you the shirt off their back, even if it meant their own skin was left to deal with the elements. I readily returned the warm smiles I received from curious passersby as the truck paused at a stoplight.
“What happened next?” I reluctantly pulled my gaze from a cherubic toddler trying in vain to keep up with an older brother.
John Clyde grasped the steering wheel with both hands, hard, until his knuckles faded to white. “Little things mostly. Then Kissy went missing.”
“Patty and Yolanda’s daughter.”
“They have a daughter?” A strange feeling stirred below my breastbone.
“Yeah, a four-year-old, adopted formally about six months ago.”
“Oh. Patty never told me. What happened to her? Is she okay?”
“Yes.” He nodded thoughtfully as he watched the road. “She was missing for several hours, and we had the whole farm looking for her. She turned up wandering the banks of Ruddy Bayou.”
“Well, what happened? Did she get lost? How did she get away from the house by herself?”
“It appears that someone whacked her on the head from behind and then threw her in the water to be eaten by gators. Luckily the water revived her and she made it to the side. Thank goodness Patty and Landa insisted on those swimming lessons last summer.”
“I just don’t get it,” I said, studying the side of John Clyde’s face as though the answers resided there. “Why would someone want to hurt the little girl? That makes no sense.”
“I think to get at Patty, or maybe Yolanda,” John Clyde mused. We were some miles south of town now, and he slowed to take the right onto Route 171, which would take us farther south to Pepperwood Trail and Fortune Farm.
Wide green road signs proclaimed that we were now bypassing Brethren, Louisiana, home of the Flathead Catfish. Brethren, population just under one thousand, was a small, sleepy community set along the Sabine River. The main employer for the area was the hospital, named after lumber baron slash philanthropist, Ernest Glass, then the ConAgra factory and then the Gulf Oil refinery on the banks of Sabine Lake.
It was a tourist’s paradise, however, and people flocked to hotels and restaurants on the outskirts of Brethren to fish or ski Sabine Lake or to save money as they played the gaming tables in Lake Charles. Hell, a lot of the residents commuted the half hour’s drive into Lake Charles for jobs where the easy money was just that much sweeter.
I lowered my eyes from the boring highway scenery and thought about the things that had been happening. I wondered who Patty, John Clyde or Yolanda could have angered to such an extent. The Price family was one of the more well-connected and prosperous farming families and had garnered a good share of community respect.
“Do you think it is a lifestyle issue?” I asked finally. “Like those women over in Ovett, Mississippi, who found dead animals hanging on their mailbox?”
“Maybe,” he replied, studying me briefly. “The people around here all pretty much know about Patty and don’t seem to care.” He colored slightly. “I mean, you and Patty never had any trouble when you were together, did you?”
When we were together. I allowed the memory of those days to overtake me. I usually avoided thinking about Patty and the way we had loved one another and was surprised now to discover the pain had finally lessened somewhat.
A shrill sound fractured the silence that had grown between us. John Clyde reached between the truck seats and fetched the ringing phone that was plugged into the dash.
“John Clyde Price,” he said after he flipped open the small, clamshell-styled phone. He listened a moment. “Goddamn,” he replied finally. “We’re almost there.”
“Who was it?” I asked, worried by the grimness of John Clyde’s face after he closed the phone. This was a new face, one I’d never seen on him before. He was an affable man, generally, prone to laughter and pranks. This new, angry man was a stranger.
“It was Paul. They got the goats.”
“The goats?” I repeated, feeling stupid.
“Patty’s baby goats. She was raising goats for cheese and to sell, but she couldn’t let go of the babies. Fell in love with them.” He lowered his foot on the gas pedal and restlessly guided the truck toward home. I felt a sour stirring in the center of my gut.
“What happened to them?”
Human, the Labrador mutt Patty and I had rescued from the animal shelter seven years ago, greeted the truck with a subdued trot as we passed through the white wooden wing gates of Fortune Farm. Slowly bypassing the sprawling white farmhouse, John Clyde pulled the truck around to the edge of the landscaped backyard, where a large fenced-in lot had been set up for the goats. Several farmhands had crowded around the tall, chain-link entry, but they moved aside quickly to let John Clyde and me through. One of the older hands, a man named Real, balding and distinguished, though smudged with rich, black Louisiana dirt, was gently trying to pull Patty away from the randomly scattered, fallen goats.
“Come on, miss, you just let us handle this now,” he said, his somber, soothing voice carrying to me and causing sudden tears to sprout in my eyes.
Patty allowed herself to be led to the gate, where her gaze fell on me. Then she was in my arms, her body convulsing as she sobbed her grief into the front of my T-shirt. I, momentarily taken aback, found memory the oarsman that guided my hands to Patty’s back, found an old voice that calmed the child in Patty. I lowered my face, permitting myself the luxury of closing my eyes and experiencing the welcome fit of Patty in my arms. John Clyde moved close to pass by both of us, and I suddenly remembered the here and now.
Opening my eyes, I saw Yolanda watching with a cool, shuttered expression as the eight or so farmhands followed John Clyde and moved past us to carry away the tiny carcasses.
Yolanda Elliott had changed little in the years since she’d stolen Patty from me. She was still tall and slender, with blond, spiky hair, cropped very short. Her face was pleasant, but often vacant, and after the breakup, I had often wondered what had drawn Patty so forcibly to her. The few times I had swallowed my pride and actually tried to talk with Yolanda had been surprising disappointments; Yolanda seemed to lack even the most fundamental of conversational skills. Or maybe she just plain didn’t like me. We certainly had nothing in common. Except Patty.
“I just can’t believe someone would do this to helpless animals!” Patty had pulled back and was watching the removal operation with sorrow, occasionally sobbing with an intake of breath. Human pressed himself against her thighs, clearly distressed by her anguish.
“Well, what happened?” John Clyde asked petulantly, running fingers through his already tousled hair. He looked bewildered.
Patty shook her head. “I can’t say, John Clyde. Paul came in the back door and asked me to come have a look because the goats were acting funny, like they were drugged or something. By the time Landa and I got out here Peaches was already gone.”
Her face contorted with the memory, and I automatically grasped her shoulder to reassure and calm her.
“Did anyone see someone strange hanging around the pen today?” I asked, studying the rapidly diminishing crowd of farm workers.
“I already asked Real, and he said no one noticed anything unusual. The regular crew fed and watered them and about a half hour later they started stumbling,” Yolanda said, as she stepped forward and extended her hand to me for a cursory handshake. There was a nod of acknowledgment, maybe truce, and we both turned our focus back toward Patty.
“Have you noticed anyone, or anything, unusual on the ranch, Patty?” I asked.
Patty sighed heavily to express her exasperation. “No, Denni, no one, nothing. Just the vandalism. I really hope you can get to the bottom of this, otherwise I’m gonna lose my mind, for sure.”