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The Red-Hot Cajun
By Sandra Hill
Warner ForeverCopyright © 2007 Sandra Hill
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe long hot summer just got hotter ...
"That Richard Simmons sure is a hottie."
Whaaat? Reni LeDeux put down the caulking gun he'd been using to chink the logs of his home-in-progress and stared in astonishment at his great aunt Louise Rivard, who'd made that astounding announcement. Tante Lulu, as she was known, lounged on a hammock in the front yard, cool as a Cajun cucumber.
He wore only cargo shorts, a tool belt, and heavy work boots in deference to the scorching heat of the hottest summer in Louisiana history. He swiped his forearm across his brow, as much to gather patience as sweat before speaking. "Tante Lulu! Richard Simmons is not a hottie. Not by any stretch of anyone's imagination."
"He is in mine. Whoo-ee! When he wears those short shorts, I just melt."
Now that was an image he did not need. He tried picturing his seventy-nine-year-old great aunt in hormone overload. Talk about! But it did explain her attire: a pink headband encircling tight white curls, a red tank top with the logo Exercise That!, purple nylon running shorts, and white athletic shoes with short anklets sporting pink pom-poms on the back. She was a five-foot-zero package of wrinkled skinniness, the last person in the world in need of aworkout. The fact that she was a noted traiteur, or folk healer, while at the same time being a bit batty, was a contradiction he and his brothers had accepted all their lives.
He adored the old lady. They all did.
He started to walk toward her and cracked his shin against the big wooden box in the middle of the porch. "Ow, ow, ow!" he howled aloud, while inside he screamed much fouler words and hopped about on one foot.
"I tol' you ya shoulda put yer hope chest inside," Tante Lulu said as she raised her head slightly to see what all his ruckus was about. "Doan wanna get rain or bird poop on it or nuthin'."
Actually, inside wasn't much better than outside when it came to Reni's raised log house. He had the roof and frame up, but no windows, only screens. It was all just one big room with an unfinished loft, aside from the bathroom, which was operational thanks to a rain-filled cistern. A gasoline-operated generator provided electricity for the fridge and stove. Except for a card table and two folding chairs, a bookcase, and a bed with mosquito netting, there was no furniture. That's the way he liked it. It would do till the construction work was completed.
Of course now he had a hope chest to add to his furnishings. And the midget-sized plastic St. Jude statue sitting in the front yard, another of Tante Lulu's "gifts." St. Jude was the patron saint of hopeless causes. Reni was no fool. Tante Lulu was giving him a message with both her gifts.
"Auntie, there is something I need to say to you. My life is in shambles right now. I quit my job. I'm burned out totally. Don't even think of trying to set me up with some woman. I am not in the market for a wife."
Whenever his great aunt thought it was time for one of her nephews to bite the bullet, she started in on them. Embroidered pillow cases, bridal quilts, doilies for chrissake. She was a one-woman Delta Force when she got a bee in her matchmaking bonnet.
Right now, he was the bee.
Tante Lulu ignored everything he said and continued on about the exercise guru. "Charmaine is gonna try to get us tickets to go see Richard-I likes to call him Richard or Dickie-next time he comes to N'awlins."
Dickie? Mon Dieu!
"Mebbe I'll even get picked fer one of his TV shows."
That was a hopeless wish if he ever heard one. He hoped. St. Jude, you wouldn't! Would you?
Charmaine was his half sister and as much a bubblehead as his great aunt. The prospect of his Tante Lulu doing jumping jacks on TV was downright scary. But then, she and Charmaine had entered a belly dancing contest not so long ago. So, not out of the realm of possibilities.
"Mebbe ya could go to his show with us. Mebbe ya could meet a girl there. Then I wouldn't have to fix you up."
Yep, that's my dream date, all right. "Don't you dare try fixing me up."
"And Charmaine's gonna get me the latest video of 'Sweatin' to the Oldies' fer my birthday in September. You want she should get you one, too?"
"No, I don't want an exercise video. Besides, I thought Charmaine was planning a big birthday bash for your gift."
"Cain't a girl get two gifts? Jeesh!" She eyed him craftily. "Actually, I'm hopin' fer three gifts."
At first he didn't understand. Then he raised both hands in protest. "No, no, no! I am not getting leg shackled to some woman just to give you a birthday present. How about I take you to the racetrack again this year for a birthday gift, like I did last year?"
She shook her head. "Nope, this birthday is a biggie. I'm 'spectin biggie gifts." She gave him another of her pointed looks.
"Of course, I might be dead. Then you won't hafta give me anythin', I reckon."
He had to laugh at the sly old bird. She would try anything to get her own way. "I'm only thirty-five years old. I got plenty of time."
"Thirty-five!" she exclaimed. "All yer juices is gonna dry up iffen ya wait too long."
"My juices are just fine, thank you very much." Jeesh! Next, she'll be asking me if I can still get it up.
"You can still do it, cain't you?"
He refused to answer.
"I want to rock one of yer bibis afore I die."
"No. No, no, no!"
"We'll see." Tante Lulu smiled and saluted the St. Jude statue. "Remember, sweetie, when the thunderbolt hits, there ain't no help fer it."
Reni had been hearing about the thunderbolt ever since he was a little boy hiding out with his brothers Luc and Remy from their alcoholic father. Always, they would hot-tail it to Tante Lulu's welcoming cottage. The thunderbolt pretty much represented love in the old lady's book.
He had news for her. He might own a townhouse in Baton Rouge, but this piece of land was all the love he needed, even if it was just a weekend or vacation place. In truth, it was all the love-meaning trouble-he could handle at the moment. To say his life was in chaos was an understatement.
He'd recently quit his job in Washington D.C. as an environmental lobbyist, burned out after years of hitting his head against the brick wall that is comprised of the oil industry, developers, sport fishermen, and levee builders who are destroying the bayou he was so passionate about. Up to thirty-five miles of the Louisiana wetlands were sinking into the Gulf of Mexico each year. In some places, the coastline had already retreated thirty miles. But environmental protection cost money. Estimates were that billions would be needed over the next fifty years. But the U.S. government had expensive problems of its own-terrorism, poverty, you name it-and Louisiana was a poor state due to fiscal mismanagement, corruption, and loss of oil and gas revenues. For every battle Reni had won to protect the Louisiana coastal wetlands, he'd lost a war.
In his lifetime, he had been a shrimp fisherman, every type of blue collar worker imaginable, a musician (he played a mean accordion), an environmental advocate and lobbyist. Hell, if he ever finished his doctoral thesis, he could probably be a college professor as well.
But there was no point to any of it. He was a failure in his most important work: the bayou. The fire in his belly had turned to cold ashes. For sure, the joie de vivre was gone from his life.
So he'd hung tail and come back to Southern Louisiana and resumed work on this cabin-or fishing camp as they were known thereabouts-in one of the most remote regions of Bayou Black. He loved this piece of property, which he'd purchased ten years ago. It included a wide section of the slow-moving stream. To the right of the cabin, the stream forked off in two directions, separated by a small island that was home to every imaginable bird in the world, including the graceful stilt-legged egret. The only access to the land was by water plane or a three-day, grueling pirogue ride from Houma. No Wal-Marts. No super highways. No look-alike housing developments. No wonder he'd been able to buy it for a song. No one else had wanted it.
"I think I hear a plane." Tante Lulu interrupted his reverie. "Help me offa this thing. I'm stuck."
He went over and lifted her out of the hammock and onto her feet. The top of her head barely reached his chest.
"It mus' be Remy," she said, peering upward.
His brother Remy was a pilot. He'd brought Tante Lulu here yesterday for an overnight visit, promising to return for her today.
But, no, it wasn't Remy, they soon discovered. It was Reni's friends, Joe Bob and Maddie Doucet, who could best be described as aged hippies. Both of them had long hair hanging down their backs, black with strands of gray. At fifty and childless, they were devoted to each other and the bayou where generations of both their families had lived and "farmed" for shrimp. They were quintessential tree huggers, and they couldn't seem to accept that Reni had dropped out of the fight ... for now.
"Lordy-a-mercy! It's those wacky friends of yers," Tante Lulu said as they watched the couple climb out of the rusty old water plane and anchor it to the shore by tying ropes from its floats to a nearby live oak tree.
Tante Lulu calling someone wacky was like the alligator calling the water snake wet. But they were eccentric. Like, right now, J.B. wore his old Marine camouflage fatigues; the only things missing were an ammunition belt and rifle. Maddie wore an orange jumpsuit that had a former life on either an airplane mechanic or a prisoner. Probably a prisoner. She and J.B. had both served time on occasion when their participation in peaceful protests had become not-so-peaceful. J.B. was a well-decorated soldier who had come home to emerge as a "soldier" in domestic causes.
"Holy crawfish! Where do those two shop? Goodwill or Army Surplus?" Tante Lulu whispered to him.
He had no time to answer or warn his great aunt to be nice. Not that she would ever deliberately hurt anyone ... unless she perceived them to be a threat to her family. She did have a tendency to be blunt, though.
"Hey, Joe Bob. Hey, Maddie. Whatcha doin' here?" Tante Lulu asked as they approached.
Yep, blunt-is-us. Reni groaned inwardly but smiled. "J.B., Maddie. Good to see you again so soon." Whatcha doin' here?
They didn't smile back.
Uh-oh! The serious expressions on their faces gave Reni pause. Something was up.
"What's up?" he asked.
"Now, Reni, don't be gettin' mad till you've heard us out," Maddie urged.
The hairs on the back of his neck stood up on high alert. "Why would I get mad at you?" The last time he'd lost his temper with them was two years ago when they'd used their shrimp boat as a battering ram against a hundred thousand dollar sport-fishing boat out on the Gulf. The sport fishermen's crime: hauling up almost extinct species of native fish as bycatch, which meant they just tossed them back into the water, dead. It had taken all of his brother Luc's legal expertise to extricate J.B. and Maddie from that mess.
"You've got a lot of work done since we were here last week," J.B. remarked, ignoring both his wife's and Reni's words. The idiot obviously made polite conversation to cover the fact that he was as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs.
"Forget the casual bullshit. What's going on?" Reni insisted on knowing.
It was Maddie who answered. "Remember how you said one time that what we need out here in the bayou is some celebrity to get behind our cause? Like Dan Rather or Diane Sawyer. TV reporters or somethin' who would spend a week or two here where they could see firsthand how the bayou is bein' destroyed. Put us on the news, or make a documentary exposing the corruption."
Man oh man, I hate it when people quote back to me stuff I don't recall saying. "Yeah," he said hesitantly. "So, did you bring Dan and Diane out here? Ha! Like that would ever happen!"
"Well, actually ..." J.B. began.
Reni went stiff.
Tante Lulu whooped. "Hot-diggity-damn!"
It was then that Reni noticed how J.B. and Maddie kept casting surreptitious glances toward the plane.
"What's this all about? What's in the plane?"
"Jumpin' Jehosephat! They musta brought Dan Rather here," his great aunt said, slapping her knee with glee. "Great idea! I allus wanted to meet Dan Rather. Do ya think he'd give me an autograph?"
"It's not Dan Rather," Maddie said, her face flushing in the oddest way. Odd because nothing embarrassed Maddie. Nothing.
This must be really bad. "Spit it out, guys. If it's not Dan Rather"-he couldn't believe he actually said that-"then who is it?"
"Oh, mon Dieu! It mus' be Diane Sawyer then. I allus wanted her autograph, too. Betcha she could introduce me to Richard Simmons."
"What're you wantin' with that flake Richard Simmons?" J.B. asked.
Tante Lulu smacked his upper arm. "Bite yer tongue, boy. He's a hottie."
"Are you nuts?" Maddie asked.
"No more'n you," Tante Lulu shot back.
"Unbelievable!" Reni said, putting his face in his hands. After counting to ten, he turned on J.B. "Is there a human being on that plane?"
There is! Sonofabitch! I sense a disaster here. A monumental disaster. And I thought I was escaping here to peace and tranquility. "Why is that human being not getting off the plane?" he asked very slowly, hoping desperately that his suspicions were unfounded.
"Because the human being is tied up." J.B. also spoke very slowly.
Tied up? Holy shit! Holy freakin' shit! I'm getting the mother of all headaches. St. Jude, where are you? I could use some help.
A voice in his head replied, Not when you use bad language. Tsk-tsk-tsk!
It was either St. Jude, or he was losing his mind. He was betting on the latter.
A celebrity who could do a TV documentary, that's what they hinted at. "A network TV anchor?" he finally asked, even though he was fairly certain they weren't that crazy. Best to make sure, though. "Did you kidnap a major network TV anchor?"
"Not quite," Maddie said.
Not the answer I want to hear. He sliced her with an icy glare. "What the hell does 'not quite' mean?"
"Not from a major network. And she's not an anchor, more of a news analyst." She glanced at her husband and said, "I told you Reni would get mad."
Mad doesn't begin to express how I'm feeling. "What the hell does 'not from a major network' mean?"
"She's on Trial TV. And you don't have to yell."
You haven't heard yelling yet, Maddie girl. "She? You kidnapped a female TV celebrity?" His headache had turned into a sledgehammer, and visions of lawsuits began doing the rumba in his brain.
He looked at Tante Lulu, and Tante Lulu looked at him.
Excerpted from The Red-Hot Cajun by Sandra Hill Copyright © 2007 by Sandra Hill. Excerpted by permission.
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