“…the top ten reasons Iran’s Ahmadinejad called Michelle Obama to help select his new inauguration outfit. Reason number one…” Letterman waited for Paul to cue the de-dump-daaaah before continuing. The two booming thumps on the base drum and a deafening cymbal clap didn’t awaken the lady sprawled on the blue and brown tapestry sofa like Modigliani’s Reclining Nude. From the doorway between the kitchen and the back den, what the deputy saw in the semi-darkness was the yellow silk dress that hugged the woman’s every curve. Quite a contrast to the pool of red he’d just stepped around. The lady hadn’t moved yet, and he wondered if she too was dead.
* * * * *
Whispered suppositions dissolved into morning haze when the black sedan inched up to the curb. An ex-Marine deputy, his movements a sequence of angular flexions and rotations from shoulder to fingertip and ear to ankle, strode around from the driver’s side to open the passenger door. He offered his hand, and every brow-joined eye fixed on the black-stockinged leg that slid out from under a summer squash-yellow evening gown split clear up to the right thigh. They had seen this dress in their morning paper. She didn’t look like a murderess.
The full-color picture covered half the MORNING ADVOCATE Society page, and the only difference in the woman’s attire that any of her audience noticed now, was the placement of a sheer black scarf that had hung across the front of her neck and floated down either side of her back the previous night. It had covered all but the center strip of her milk-caramel skin, down to the deep V where the yellow silk closed and met point-to-point with the top of her buttocks—this morning the scarf was an accessory over steel bracelets and chain. Onlookers elbowed each other: “See, not even a drop of blood on her.”
On the sidewalks and lawns of the governmental complex, the crowd waited to see a loyal friend and compassionate citizen. They fanned themselves in the morning’s low broil, patiently yet morbidly fascinated as they endured what became a two-hour wait. Later, they would open their EVENING POST to Audra Lee Fontaine’s assurance in three-inch letters margin-to-margin:
“I DID NOT KILL MY HUSBAND.”
Slow-dancing Magnolias and Live Oaks undulate with the warm Gulf breezes that glide through the emerald hills of Plaquemine, Louisiana. The character of the small community more flavors the manners and sense of honor associated with Charlestonians than that of the modestly educated, naught-traveled population its demographics suggest. Plaquemine’s Edenesque persona is a matter of pride for its citizens: murder is a foreign concept, and what men do to invite their demise is an unpalatable subject of discourse that the residents would likely never address, were it not for the current involvement of Miss Audra.
Few rooftops manage to peep through Plaquemine’s dense canopy, their owners clearing swaths from their multi-acre tracts only where gardens and grazing must be had. South of town, the land flattens like a bed sheet just settling on a mattress, interrupted only by bubbles too small to call hills. Larger ranches and farms speckle the south side, and the Fontaine home—the only residence with a two-acre front yard of meticulously edged St. Augustine and rigid-edged landscape beds with non-endemic varieties hand watered to survive the brutal August heat—rests at the margin of these two regions. Behind the 10,000 square-foot house (So foreign, the neighbors always thought. “Mediterranean? In South Louisiana?”), on the half-moon night of May 23, 2009, blazing beams from the cruisers of the sheriff, five deputies, and two State Troopers, plus two ambulances and a fire truck, studded the emerald hills and flung rays across the adjacent slopes, giant red spotlights that shown to the edge of town.
Inside, the kitchen gave the ethereal quality of a horror film. Shadows of eleven men chased the nearby cruisers’ red lights, orbiting the room like strobes, and the torso-sized pool of blood seemed to be still growing. Other than a bloody smudge on the pantry door an arm’s-length from the body, nothing in the kitchen was disturbed—not a glass overturned, not a chair off of its strictly perpendicular placement at the breakfast table, not a picture frame out of balance. A deputy in attendance later remarked, “None of us could believe that so much blood could come from a single person. We had to just stand there, while this huge spot of red kept growing, just kept leaking out of him like a pinhole in a jug o’ tomato juice, and he still had his watch and his wedding ring and his wallet. And Mrs. Fontaine right in the next room, taking a nap.” None had ever witnessed such a curious, haunting sight. Plaquemine wasn’t that kind of town.
First on the scene, Deputy Franklin Lanier had arrived at 11:03 p.m. in response to a 9-1-1 emergency call placed by Mr. Fontaine. Lanier turned onto the Fontaine driveway to find both Fontaine cars in the drive and bright lights burning throughout the first floor. When no one answered his knock on the front door, nor the doorbell, Lanier examined the front, then the side windows and found nothing amiss. He advanced toward the rear of the house. He stopped in his tracks as he approached the kitchen. Bright light from the kitchen illuminated the Arkansas-stone lanai, pouring out through floor-to-ceiling windows. It was a shoe he first saw.
Un-holstering his gun and inching forward, a lower leg came into view, horizontal on the glowing white ceramic floor. He pointed his pistol at the stillness on the floor, scanned the room, shouted, “Police! Come out with your hands up!” Still, nothing moved.
He ran through the stream of light, skidding on the dewy pavestones at the kitchen door, and bracing himself against the door jamb, now pointing that pistol at the knob before he thought to test it. When it turned, he threw the door wide, shuffled toward that foot, and that leg, and the rest of that body. He pressed the button on his walkie-talkie. “Got a body here.”
Ten minutes later, in an inspection of the entire premises, Sheriff Willie Hebert found the front door to be unlocked as well. Five minutes after that, a dozen neighbors fingered their rosaries as they ambled up to the yellow crime-scene tape wrapped around the carport. (“That uppity Fontaine, calling it a porte-cochere for heaven’s sake!”)
The Fontaines’ neighbors are mostly Catholic—good, fine Christians found every Sunday morning in Plaquemine’s 150-year-old cathedral, a structure that speaks more to some ancient vision of a grand city the town’s founders errantly foresaw, rather than the humble community it became. In Back Plaquemine, good, fine Christians built a second church, the one for blacks (though a few blacks do occasionally attend The Big Church). Whites still notice blacks, and blacks still pay attention to whites, but they share the town’s rhythmic sense of peace, and a civilized simpatico prevails. By eleven o’clock the following morning, blacks and whites alike were already mulling over possible explanations for a murder in their own backyard, murmuring discreet suspicions as thick and hot as the air itself: musta been jilted ex-employees; maybe those two Back Plaquemine boys Mr. Fontaine sent up the river when they egged his Mercedes; surely, that boy that broke into the Devillier house is the culprit... Miss Audra could not have managed this heinous act, ergo, Mr. Fontaine must have brought this upon himself—even if Miss Audra did have motive, this thing was done by ruthless criminals that the sheriff would most certainly track down. Heckuva thing. Heckuva thing.
“Ol’ Wes, he never did quite fit in,” remarked Conway Sebastian, sipping café au lait on the front porch of Plaquemine’s singular Bed & Breakfast, the Just Like Home. “He wasn’t like other folk in town. But he sure was good with money. Never met a poor Jew. Guess some stereotypes got good merit to ‘em.”
* * * * *
Four deputies, the sheriff, the District Attorney, and defense attorney Archibald Wilson surrounded Audra as the mute procession scaled the thirty limestone steps that led to the courthouse—only the tap of Miss Audra’s stilettos broke the trance of her audience.
She reached the landing at the top of the steps and stopped, waiting as two deputies opened the glass and brass entry doors. One to the left, one to the right. Both tipped their hats as she passed, and the crowd wondered whether foreign prisoners were afforded the same courtesy as this pillar of their community, this organizer of Little League bake sales, Susan Komen walks for The Cure, and grammar school marches for dimes, this protector of ancient Live Oaks and solicitor for justice, this icon who was “one of them.” One of them shouted, “We love you Miss Audra!”