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I had known the Sonnier family all my life. I had attended the Catholic elementary school in New Iberia with three of them, had served with one of them in Vietnam, and for a short time had dated Drew, the youngest child, before I went away to the war. But, as I learned with Drew, the Sonniers belonged to that group of people whom you like from afar, not because of what they are themselves, but because of what they represent--a failure in the way that they're put together, a collapse of some genetic or familial element that it should be the glue of humanity.
The background of the Sonnier children was one that youinstinctively knew you didn't want to know more about, in the same way that you don't want to hear the story of a desperate and driven soul in an after-hours bar. As a police officer it has been my experience that pedophiles are able to operate and stay functional over long periods of time and victimize scores, even hundreds, of children, because no one wants to believe his or her own intuitions about the symptoms in the perpetrator. We are repelled and sickened by the images thatour own minds suggest, and we hope against hope that the problem is in reality simply one of misperception.
Systematic physical cruelty toward children belongs in the same shoebox. Nobody wants to deal with it. I cannot remember one occasion, in my entire life, when I saw one adult interfere in a public place with the mistreatment of a child at the hands of another adult. Prosecutors often wince when they have to take a child abuser to trial, because usually the only witnesses they can use are children who are terrified at theprospect of testifying against their parents. And ironically a successful prosecution means that the victim will become a legal orphan, to be raised by foster parents or in a state institution that is little more than a warehouse for human beings.
As a child I saw the cigarette bums on the arms and legs of the Sonnier children. They were scabbed over and looked like coiled; gray worms. I came to believe that the Sonniers grew up in a furnace rather than a home.
It was a lovely spring day when the dispatcher at the Iberia Parish sheriff's office, where I worked as a plainclothes detective, called me at home and said that somebody had fired a gun through Weldon Sonnier's dining--room window and I could save time by going out there directly rather than reporting to the office first.
I was at my breakfast table, and through the open window I could smell the damp, fecund odor of the hydrangeas in my flower bed and last night's rainwater dripping out of the pecan and oak trees in the yard. It was truly a fine morning, the early sunlight as soft as smoke in the tree limbs.
"Are you there, Dave?" the dispatcher said.
"Ask the sheriff to send someone else on this one," I said.
"You don't like Weldon?"
"I like Weldon. I just don't like, some of the things that probably go on in Weldon's head.
"Okay, I'll tell the old man."
"Never mind," I said. "I'll head out there in about fifteen minutes. Give me the rest of it."
"That's all we got. His wife called it in. He didn't. Does that sound like Weldon?" He laughed.
People said Weldon had spent over two hundred thousand dollars restoring his antebellum home out in the parish on Bayou Teche. It was built of weathered white-painted brick, with a wide columned porch, a second-floor verandah that wrapped all the way around the house, ventilated green win-dow shutters, twin brick chimneys at each extreme of thehouse, and scrolled ironwork that had been taken from historical buildings in the New Orleans French Quarter The long driveway that led from the road to the house was covered with a canopy of moss-hung live Oaks, but WeldonSonnier was not one to waste land space for the baroque and ornamental. All the property in front of the house, even the area down by the bayou where the slave quarters had once I rice stood, had been leased to tenants who planted sugar cane on it.
It had always struck me as ironic that Weldon would pay out so much of his oil money in order to live in an antebellum home, whereas in fact he had grown up in an Acadian farmhouse that was over one hundred and fifty years old, a beautiful piece of hand-hewn, notched, and pegged cypress architecture, that members of the New Iberia historical preservation society openly wept over when Weldon hired a group of half-drunk black men out of a ramshackle, backroad nightclub, gave them crowbars and axes, and calmly smoked a cigar and sipped from a glass of Cold Duck On top of a fence rail while they ripped the old Sonnier house into a pile of boards he later sold for two hundred dollars to a cabinetmaker.
When I drove my pickup truck down the driveway and parked under a spreading oak by the front Porch, two uniformed deputies were waiting for me in their car, their front doors open to let in the breeze that blew across the shaded lawn. The driver, an ex-Houston COP named Garrett, a barrel of a man with a thick blond mustache and a face the color of a fresh sunburn, flipped his cigarette into the rose bed and stood up to meet me. He wore pilot's sunglasses, and a green dragon was tattooed around his right forearm. He was still new, and I didn'tknow him well, but I'd heard that he had resigned from the Houston force after he had been suspended during an internal Affairs investigation.