July

Forty-One

Josephine had followed Mr. Budd for a few blocks, zig-zagging behind him on the side streets as he walked down St. Charles. She’d jog down Prytania, one block parallel to St. Charles, then pop up every few intersections to make sure his dark ambling figure was still headed down the broad avenue. Once she saw him, she’d descend back to Prytania again. It meant she’d have to run two or three blocks for every single one that he walked, but he was a slow walker and it worked out about right.

After a while, she realized that she’d passed, and been passed by, the same white hatchback a couple of times, and that she’d been seeing this car in front of her the entire time she’d been following Mr. Budd. She fell back and watched the car circle the block a few times ahead of her, then pull off. It was weird: it was a young man’s car, with neon lights around the license plate and flashy rims, but the driver was a real Dad, the custom steering wheel looking dainty in his large thick hands.

She didn’t know what to make of his aimless driving. At first, she’d thought maybe the guy was looking for drugs or a prostitute or something, but that didn’t make any sense in the Garden District. Then she thought about how he’d passed her twice already, and she got scared for the first time since leaping across Beaumonde’s fence. He was still ahead of her, and showed no interest in coming back, but suddenly the weight of her situation settled around her: she was not quite 17, alone after midnight on one of the busiest streets in the city, wearing flimsy little running shorts and a synthetic T-shirt. She shivered once and then ran on.

Eventually she saw Mr. Budd go into a convenience store, so she cut over a block and sprinted behind the store, then returned to St. Charles a few hundred feet away, so she could watch Mr. Budd come back out. Just before she turned the corner onto the avenue, though, she saw the bumper of the white hatchback. With a yelp she turned around and snuck away, then came back up farther down the street.

The man was idling underneath the shadow of a large elm tree, almost hidden from sight. He sat with one elbow cocked out the window, and the other stretched out across the small interior of the car. Josephine realized suddenly that he hadn’t been following her…he was following Lucas Budd, the same as she was, and he kept bumping into her.

The thought made her somehow even more nervous than before, and she kneeled down beside the large brick wall of a church and tried to get her thoughts together. Who would be following Mr. Budd? Okay, a reporter, for starters, but the guy didn’t look like one. If the stories about Mr. Budd were true, he might have a drug dealer following him, but he didn’t look like a drug dealer, either. (Like you know what a drug dealer looks like!) And didn’t some kid supposedly flee into the night when Mr. Budd was arrested? So maybe he was that kid’s dad, though that didn’t really make a whole lot of sense.

Josephine waited for a car to drive by, then she leaned around the corner and took another look at him as he was illuminated in the passing headlights. She could only see the back of his head and the sports coat that was tight across his broad shoulders and a little baggy in the arms. The man tapped out a lazy rhythm on the passenger side headrest. He had a professional, almost placid, calm about him; he seemed to be someone who was familiar with boredom, comfortable with spending a lot of time watching and waiting on the side of the road. With a start, Josephine realized what the man was.

Oh. Duh!

A few minutes later, she was still trying to decide what she should do when she heard the dual-exhaust of the hatchback start up with a puttering roar. Josephine peeked around the corner. Mr. Budd was out of the store, his backpack stuffed full now, and the policeman was just pulling onto St. Charles to follow him again.

As Mr. Budd made his way back through the deserted Garden District towards his house, he was followed by the policeman in the hatchback, and the policeman was followed by Josephine. As far as Josephine could tell, Mr. Budd didn’t realize that a white car with its headlights off was coasting behind him from a few blocks away, the pavement crackling softly under the tires. And the man in the white car didn’t see Josephine slipping from hedge to fence in the darkness behind him.

Mr. Budd began to get careless, walking sometimes off the sidewalk entirely and into open street. As he got closer to the house, he eventually gave up the idea of jumping fences. The policeman, too, seemed to be getting bored and anxious; he stopped circling the block and just hopscotched down the street behind parked cars. Only Josephine kept vigilantly to the shadows, working hard to stay out of the policeman’s rearview mirror and far enough away from Mr. Budd that he wouldn’t hear the echo of her running shoes on the pavement.

A couple blocks away from the Budd house, the policeman turned off on a side street and escaped through the dark residential neighborhood without Mr. Budd noticing. Josephine halted for a second, thinking maybe this was when a bunch of official police cars would surround Mr. Budd, putting him in handcuffs and saying the jig was up or whatever policemen said.

Nothing happened, though, and she continued following Mr. Budd as he walked on through the moist night towards his house. Then, just before he was in front of his block, he turned the corner and went deeper into the heart of the Garden District. The policeman must not have expected this.

She followed him closer now without the cop between them, but she had to be more careful, too. Luckily, it’s called the Garden District for a reason, and many of the front yards had shadow-giving trees looming heavily over the sidewalk. Mr. Budd stopped once, digging in his backpack for something, before continuing on and making one last turn.

Now, ahead of them, white against the dark blue night sky, was Mercer Mansion, Emily Bellecastle’s home. Josephine suddenly felt sick to her stomach, and she didn’t know why.

Mr. Budd slipped the socks back on his hands and was about to go over the low fence when he glanced over at the gate that led to the workman’s garage. Trying the latch and finding it unlocked, he slipped through and closed it behind himself. Josephine squatted down and snuck behind a car in another house’s driveway.

That weird guard dog trotted around the corner and did a literal double-take when he saw Mr. Budd in the backyard. The moment hung ripe between the two of them. The dog ran towards him and Josephine cringed, but all he did when he reached Mr. Budd was rub himself against the man’s legs like a housecat, almost tripping him up.

Mr. Budd went down on one knee and gave the dog long strokes down its strong back. He dug in his backpack again and brought out what looked like a hot dog, which he fed to the Doberman as he patted his flank. And he stayed there on the ground with the dog for a long time, maybe five minutes, certainly longer than he needed to if all he wanted to do was placate the animal. The dog rolled on his back and offered up his belly, which Mr. Budd scratched and rubbed with his sock-covered hands.

Josephine was still uneasy about why he was in Emily’s backyard, and finally Mr. Budd pulled himself up and gave the dog one last nuzzle between the ears. He crept over to Emily’s cottage, where a weak lamp lit up the bedroom window.

Josephine, nervous now, looked at the yard around her. There was a large ornamental goldfish pond just a few feet to her left, and it was surrounded by softball-sized rocks. She wanted to be holding one. Josephine prayed this night wouldn’t end with her throwing a rock at Alexander and Lillian’s father, but she knew she would if Mr. Budd tried to get through Emily’s door.

But Mr. Budd didn’t go to the door. He stopped at two bikes that  leaned against the side of the little cottage, chained together. He had some kind of string in his hand, long and black, and he tied it around the handlebars of Emily’s heavy cruiser. The dog watched him, silently curious, and was rewarded with more nuzzling when Mr. Budd was done.

After he’d slipped back through the gate and down the street, Josephine crept across the street and stood at the fence. It was a shoelace that dangled down from the Emily’s handlebars, but she couldn’t understand why he’d done that.

The guard dog had followed Mr. Budd down the length of the block as he walked past the Mercer, but now he came back over and stared up at her through the fence.

“Bad dog,” Josephine whispered.

She pressed the back of her hand up to the fence so the Doberman could sniff it and eventually give it an experimental lick, but Josephine didn’t really notice. She was slowly turning something over in her mind as she stared across the moonlit grounds at the two bikes, one chained to the other. Emily’s cruiser nuzzled against a yellow ten-speed with brown grip-tape there just underneath the mustard light of Emily’s bedroom window. A breeze she couldn’t feel caused the shoelace to trace a miniscule figure eight in the air.

Josephine knew who the other bike belonged to.

She looked at the two bikes for a moment more, then moved away. It didn’t take her long to catch up with Mr. Budd. She found him just as he was about to jump his next door neighbor’s fence and creep across the backyard.

Josephine stayed at the end of the block, hiding around the corner of a house and peeking out at the two guards in front of the Budd’s. It was a man and woman, both of them in their NOPD uniforms, and they were both sitting in folding chairs reading the newspaper by the light of the garage.

The jangle of the backyard fence was so loud Josephine could hear it faintly on the corner. There was no way the two guards, so much closer than her, didn’t hear it, but neither of them reacted. Eventually, though, the woman looked over at the man, who nodded deeply with a grin, never taking his eyes from the paper. The female cop turned away from him in her seat and opened her cell phone. Her face glowed blue in the dark, and she sent a quick text message before returning to the paper. The male guard nodded at her again without looking over.

Josephine waited a few minutes, but the night stayed quiet and still, so she slipped away from the corner and jogged back to her house. She took off her shoes at the door, tiptoed up to her room, and had been in her bed ever since, listening to the sound of her heart as it echoed through her limbs. Now that she was home and safe, she thought about what she’d just done and it scared her much more than it had when she’d actually been doing it.

She had seen a lot following Mr. Budd, but now she didn’t know what she should do with this new information. Or if she should do anything, actually. She didn’t even understand a lot of what she’d seen, and what could she do by herself, anyway? She needed to sleep on it, but sleep, which had been Josephine’s most consistent summer companion, had now abandoned her.

She couldn’t turn her mind off, couldn’t stop her eyes from scanning the dim lunar landscape of her bedroom ceiling. Josephine’s alarm clock was so bright that when she first got it she’d had to tape a piece of construction paper over the face so it wouldn’t keep her awake. She flipped the paper flap up: it had only been forty-five minutes since she got home from following Mr. Budd. God, it felt like she’d been there on the bed at least three times as long. She knew she wasn’t going back to sleep that night.

But then suddenly she was sleeping, and it had come over her so quickly she didn’t realize she’d drifted off until she struggled awake, whispering an idea to the dark. She knew now what she could do with what she’d seen tonight. And she knew she couldn’t do it alone.