Miss Sophronia O’Mahony had owned her little neighborhood bar for almost forty years. Since 1958. Back then she was a young, attractive woman. Now she was a beautiful, very full figured woman of means who always controlled a situation.
On the Friday afternoon the week after Biggy’s tragedy Miss Sophronia was to get a regular delivery from Jake. Her deliveries were usually made about 1:00 before the bar opened. Only she and Willa Mae were there at that time. Willa Mae provided about eighty percent of the buyers for Jake’s product.
After Jake and Miss Sophronia had gotten the pleasantries and the delivery out of the way, Jake practically whispered to her “Sophie, I’ve got something important to talk to you about and I don’t want Willa Mae to hear. Could we go upstairs or somewhere else and talk?”
“Sure, Darlin’. Just follow Miss Sophronia.”
Jake watched as Sophronia climbed the stairs ahead of him, raising her bulk one step at a time towards the door at the top. Over the years she had put on a good bit of weight but still had a beautiful, bronze-skinned complexion. She was now described as being a very full-figured woman of a certain age. And full-figured she was. At the top of the stairs they emerged into a spacious room with a bed and associated bedside tables and dresser in the far corner. In the near corner was a sitting area. A bath was built to one side and beside the bath was a tiny utility kitchen. Miss Sophronia motioned for Jake to sit in a chair and she sat on the sofa.
“Now, Darlin’, what is it you want to talk to Miss Sophronia about?”
“Remember Biggy Bigeaux?” Jake began.
“Of course, Sugar. I wasn’t surprised when he didn’t make my delivery this afternoon ‘cause I figure he the one the police be looking for. Tha’ right?” Despite her college degree, Miss Sophronia, like many other educated people in New Orleans, regardless of race, tended to use the vernacular of the city.
“Yep. Sure is.” Jake was not in the least surprised that she would have been able to recognize Biggy from the description in the paper as well as the fact that he was not there making her delivery instead of Jake.
“So what about him? You know where he is?”
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“Yep. He’s down in Lafourche holed up on his houseboat.”
“Have you seen him? Talked to him?”
“I went down there Sunday just on a hunch that’s where he would be.”
“How long can he exist like that?”
“Theoretically he could remain there forever with little chance anybody would find out he’s there. He stashed his truck across the bayou and made arrangements with an old man that he knows to deliver him supplies and necessaries, like beer, when he needs them. But he’s not going to be able to stay holed up in that tiny little houseboat indefinitely. Besides, shape it’s in I’ll be surprised it don’t just sink to the bottom of the bayou one of these days soon.”
“Did he really do it, do you think? If he came back and turned himself in would they send him to Angola for the rest of his life?”
“According to him, and I don’t think he’s lying to me, he was stalking the girl, Polly, and had followed her home that night with the intention of peeking at her through her back window. He had done it before a couple of times. But that night — and this is according to her — her neighbor started hounding her and was about to rape her when Biggy ran towards them. It was the neighbor, Paul, who pushed her down and knocked her unconscious. She is conscious now and is being released from the hospital today, by the way. Biggy, who was watching Paul’s attack on her from the shadows of the driveway attacked Paul only because Paul was attacking Polly.”
“How do you know all this? Biggy can’t have known anything like that for sure.”
“The chief detective on the case told me. His name’s Arnold Labadie. He lives about a mile from Jake’s place. Stops in three or four nights a week on his way home. He was the first to interview Polly after she regained consciousness.”
“So did Biggy really kill the guy Paul?”
“He did, but it was an accident. All he wanted to do was stop the guy from hurting Polly. He didn’t even realize he had killed him until I told him on Sunday. It didn’t help that Polly screamed just as Biggy got to them and that scared him so he slammed Paul’s head down on the concrete several times before running off. “
“So what are you going to do, Jake?”
“I have contacted a defense attorney, Missy Allison. Know her?”
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“I don’t either but she’s supposed to be good. I’ve carried her card for years just in case I need an attorney. Even gave one to Biggy when he started working for me. She’s agreed to take his case and allow me to pay her anonymously. She says if he turns himself in she can probably get him out on bail the next day or even the same day but the next day at the latest.”
“Sounds good. So what’s the problem?”
“At first I thought it was all settled. I arranged to signal Biggy when it’s safe for him to come back to town by placing a particular ad in the Picayune’s personals section. But then I got to thinkin’. He can’t come back and become my deliveryman again and he can’t just be here without any visible means of support. Until there’s a verdict, even if Biggy is free on bond, the cops and the D.A. are going to begin delving into what Biggy’s been doing in New Orleans for the last few months. The first thing they’re going to ask him is why he was there in Ms. Duplessis’ driveway and he’ll have to tell them something. I don’t know what to do, Sophie.”
Sophronia reached out and patted him on the knee. “I may have a solution for you, Honey.” she said in a patronizing voice. “What if Biggy came to live and work right here? What if as far as anybody knows he has been working here ever since he came to New Orleans?”
“Miss Sophronia!” Jake said as if he were completely surprised, although he had thought this might be a feasible solution. But he expected to have to build her up to it. He hadn’t expected her to make such a suggestion herself. Not so quickly, anyway. “You don’t mean you want him living here …” Jake swept his hand around to indicate her bedroom where they sat, “with you? Do you?”
She slapped him hard on the knee this time. “Of course not! You fool. But there’s a very big storeroom downstairs and about half of it’s just empty space. There’s a half-bath there so no tub or shower. We could see what it would cost to install one. I have a regular customer who’s a plumber. Stops by every afternoon. Work’s for me whenever I need him to. I’ll ask him this afternoon how hard it would be to put in a shower and how much it would cost. Let’s go down and see what else we’ll need to do.”
She started to get up but before she could Jake held out his hand to keep her in her seat.
“Wait, Sophie. Why don’t you tell me your entire plan first. If people are going to think that Biggy has been living and working here for the three months since he came to New Orleans it means you’ll have to lie for him. Are you really willing to do that?”
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“It’s not much, really. And if the police think Biggy has been working and sleeping here since he came to New Orleans there would be no reason for them to even know that you are involved with him at all. Aside from being childhood friends. He came to you when he first came to the city. That’s natural. You let him sleep on your floor for a few nights until you talked me into taking a chance on him. Besides, he’s been coming in regularly three or four nights a week. A few of my regulars already know him. Maybe not his name because he keeps to himself, but they surely will recognize him by sight. If asked, they have been seeing him around since he first got to the city. It will be no surprise they never knew he was actually working here in the mornings before I open for business. As far as anyone knows, it was me he contacted after he got to Lafourche and it was me who arranged for his lawyer.”
As her plan unfolded before Jake’s eyes, much of it, he felt, being formulated on the spot, he realized it was a good one and had as good a chance as anything of working.
“Now.” she said. “Let’s go down and see what else we have to do to make him a sleeping closet.”
The tiny toilet in the back corner was barely big enough to accommodate one person doing their business, much less big enough to install a shower in.
Jake surveyed the stockroom. The floor was bare wood and there was no ceiling, just the joists for the floor above. “Sophie,” Jake said. “it would be real easy to frame up an area right here next to the toilet with two-by-fours and plywood. The plywood wouldn’t have to go all the way up even. We could put a door right next to the toilet here and a shower just inside the little sleeping room. That would make the plumbing pretty easy and give him a private place to take a shower. What do you think?”
“It’ll work.” Sophronia said. “I even know a guy who can get us used materials to build it. Make it look like it’s been here forever. A half bed and a bedside table with a lamp. Maybe an old chair. Who could we get to build it on short notice?”
“I can do that myself. Sunday morning. No, wait, I think I better go down to Lafourche and talk to Biggy on Sunday morning. If I just signal him in the paper he would think he could come back to his old apartment so I think it best I go down and talk to him. I’ll go out in the morning and get the bed and other furniture stuff and all the supplies for building the room. You see about getting the shower put in.”
Late on Friday afternoon Sophronia called Jake to tell him George had agreed it would be no trouble to put a used shower stall where they had planned it. He could have it installed by the time she opened on Saturday.
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