obody had said a damned thing to Lireinne about any freaking tour.
“Oh, for sureâshe's one in a million, Hiro-san.” The big plywood doors swung open into the BFG alligator barn, hot yellow sun spilling a wide square onto the cement aisle. Dust motes danced in the light. Tina from the front office ushered a small group of Japanese visitors inside into the steamy air of the long, low structure, while somewhere a peacock called to its mate in an imperial screech.
. This scorching Thursday morning in August was a headache aborning in Covington, Louisiana.
Lireinne Hooten didn't turn around at the group's entrance. Instead, she kept her high-pressure hose trained on a stubborn crusted pile of gator feed in a far corner of the barn. Spilled pellets attracted swarms of rats, and even the farm's resident cat population, rumored to be somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty or so, couldn't keep up. The cats, all of them orange, feral, and disturbingly inbred, scattered like the rats themselves when Lireinne got to work early in the morning and the hose came out.
Well, every cat had blown the joint this morning and this tour was messing with her routine. She hoped it was going to be shorter than usual. The BFG barn had to get done before she could move on to the other twenty barns.
Tina and the Japanese gathered at the first tank down by the entrance. Tina slid open the plywood access door, showing off the farm's prized white alligator.
“Snowball's not really an albinoâshe's leucistic. Albinos' skins have no pigment, but Snowball's pigment is white.” Four Japanese cameras chittered insect-like whirs. Tina raised her voice in order to be heard over the low roar of Lireinne's hose, relating the short history of Snowball. “The egg collection crew found her eight years ago in '96, part of a clutch of eggs out west, near Morgan City. Out of hundreds of thousands of alligators, she's the only white one we've ever hatched.”
The Japanese were bound to have asked the routine questions since Tina spieled on. “These BFG eight-footers will go to a tannery in Paris to make handbagsâevery purse uses a whole grade-one skin. This barn is part of the 1999-year class, but Snowball's bigger because she's three years older. And no, she's not for sale. She's sort of a farm mascot.”
Another low-voiced, polite question. “Oh, right,” Tina said. “It's called the BFG barn for Big French Gators.”
Bullshit. The crew called it the BFG barn for Big Fucking Gators and everybody knew it. Lireinne stole a glance over her shoulder at the approaching group through the black curtain of her hair. The Japanese, four undersized men in business suits, ties, and mirror-polished shoes, had put down their cameras and were in varying stages of reacting to the intense smell. One of them pinched his nostrils shut against the overpowering reptile reek while the others merely appeared uncomfortable, maybe regretting a big breakfast.
Lireinne thought, lowering her head. Her long hair, glossy as her pink nail polish, swung down to cover the crescent-shaped scar bisecting her right eyebrow.
Get out, go play PokÃ©mon or whatever.
Meanwhile Tina and the Japanese were strolling down the middle of the barn aisle, stopping from time to time to slide open the plywood doors and peer down into the tanks at the alligators. Lireinne didn't turn off the hose, even though if they kept coming her way those tiny, shiny shoes would be ruined. She didn't care. As she saw it, Lireinne was exercising her right to free speech. And besides, instead of her preferred footwear, flip-flops, stupid company policy forced her to wear white rubber shrimp boots she'd had to buy herself. Not even a gator could do damage to those heavy, ugly-ass things.
“Hey.” Tina tapped Lireinne on the shoulder of her faded black shirt, a ripped, shapeless New Orleans Saints jersey that had once been her half brother's. “Turn that off. I'm giving a tour.” Tina's nasal whine was raised over the powerful
of the hose. She didn't call Lireinne by name, but Lireinne was used to that. For six months, since her first day on the job, the crew and the rest of the farm staff had always looked through her as though she were a ghost with a hose and that was just the way it was. Being a ghost sucked. Lireinne didn't answer Tina and she didn't turn the water off either.
Make me, she thought mutinously. I'm working here and you're not.
” Tina snapped.
. Lireinne twisted the hose's galvanized nozzle shut. The barn was suddenly quiet, the silence broken only by the grunts and splashing of the alligators in their tanks and desultory, incomprehensible Japanese murmurs. Tina's narrow-eyed glare promised she wouldn't forget this.
Except Tina would. A hoser was just a part of the landscape, noticed only by her absence if she didn't show up for work.
The tour moved on, the scent of the men's colognes floating like expensive chemical flowers on top of the ripe stench. Well, the stink was a part of the job, and besides, the tour had to be almost overâfourteen minutes, start to finish, the normal time it took to show visitors a couple of the barns and snap some pictures of Snowballâand in Lireinne's opinion these sweating, overdressed Asians looked like they'd seen enough. She could always tell, especially with foreign people: they'd begin glancing at their watches, edging toward the open doors at the other end of the barn and the clean, relatively cooler August air outside. The oh-my-God impact of 250,000 alligators massed in one place always wore off faster than you might think.
The tour group paused near the end of the barn for a shot of the girl with the hose. Irritated, Lireinne turned it on again in a hissing cannon of water, eliciting a glare from Tina and alarm from the Japanese, who scurried out of the doors into the hot sunlight. So what, Lireinne thought. After she finished the BFG barn, there were twenty more to hose; it was payday and Lireinne had plans for her afternoon. It was Thursday. The Dollar General got new shipments in today.
Ten minutes later, the cement aisle was spotless, a film of water slick as mineral oil pooling in the muted sun falling through the skylights overhead. Lireinne coiled the heavy python-like hose neatly around the coupler outside, but before she moved on to the next barn, she opened the door to Snowball's tank, gazing down into the water just below her boots. The eleven-foot white alligator swam up to the edge of the tank, her opaque eyes as blue as twin lapis marbles.
Digging into the pocket of her loose athletic shorts, Lireinne found the dog treat she'd bought at the dollar store.
“Here.” She dropped the beige, bone-shaped biscuit onto the surface of the water. Snowball snapped up the floating dog treat with bland ceremony, tribute accepted.
The front office of Sauvage Global Enterprises sat on the hill at the top of the four- hundred-acre farm, next to the gravel road and overlooking the big twenty-acre water retention pond. It was a converted Creole cottage, an old frame house that was much, much nicer than the place Lireinne called homeâa green-streaked double-wide on cement blocks. When she went inside the office on paydays, she liked hanging around in there because the air was deliciously cool and smelled like heaven with the aroma of chicken and dumplings, or sometimes spaghetti and meat sauce since part of the regular crew's compensation was a hot lunch. Lireinne, being what the accounting department termed “casual labor,” didn't rate even a ham sandwich. Today the kitchen smelled of fried catfish and collard greens. Big Miz 'Cille, the farm cook, didn't look up from rolling out the biscuit dough when Lireinne clomped through the back door.
“Pay's not ready yet.” Perched tremendous on a tall stool to accommodate her swollen feet and ankles, Miz 'Cille ordered, “Get out of my kitchen, you. Go wait in the Big Room and don't touch nothin'.” She punched the biscuit cutter through the stiff, floury mass, the pendulous white flesh of her arms wobbling.
So Lireinne sauntered into the adjacent vaulted-ceilinged conference room, the “Big Room,” to wait for her money. Bleached alligator skulls, some the size of suitcases, hung in skeletal splendor on the pecky cypress-paneled walls. Above the bar were the antique, sepia-toned photos of immense dead gators suspended from oak tree branches and oil derrick arms. The trappers, posed proudly beside their trophies, looked like small, wrinkled children in beat-up fedoras, dwarfed in the shadows of those record-setting dinosaurs. Like everything else in the room, they were the private property of Mr. Roger Hannigan, the owner and CEO of Sauvage Global Enterprises.
Lireinne knew better than to sit on the long leather sofas or to touch the glittering crystal decanters and highball glasses on the bar. Her place was outside with the gators, the cats, the rats, and the peacocks, but while she waited in here she liked to imagine the family who'd lived in this house before they'd sold their failing dairy farm to Hannigan, seeing them all together in this room watching the Saints on TV. The parents would be sharing a six-pack, the kids eating their dinner on trays, while the Saints, those morons, threw the game away time after time. There hadn't been TV at Lireinne's house for eight months, not since the cable company had discovered the pirated line, and so when she ate her dinner in her bedroom she was limited to the two fuzzy channels she could get on what her stepfather, Bud, called “natural TV.” Without cable, the 2004 football season was going to be a total loss. Preseason games started in a couple of days and wasn't
going to suck.
Lireinne twisted her hands together behind her slim waist, standing in the center of the Big Room, waiting on the bookkeeper to bring out the payroll. It wasn't like payday was ever going to be worth getting wound up over, though. Seven dollars an hour, minus withholding, came to less than a hundred dollars a week because the job was only part-time. But without a high school diploma that was the best an eighteen-year-old was going to get, especially since she didn't have a car and had to find work where she could walk to it. At least the farm paid her in cash. There was no way in hell she could get to the bank in town without hitchingânot such a good idea out here in the sticks.
It was nice, being in the cool Big Room after working outside in the heat since early morning. Her sweat dried now, Lireinne inhaled the mouthwatering smells coming from the kitchen while 'Cille put a plate of biscuits on the table. The back door banged open and the men of the crew began to file inside. Simultaneously, Tina herded the chattering Japanese through the Big Room and out the front door to the farm's black Escalade waiting on the driveway. They wouldn't be having catfish. Lireinne was pretty sure they'd be eating lunch at some ritzy restaurant eighteen miles away down on Highway 190 in Covington, the closest town.
“Hey, 'Cille. Smells good.”
That cigarette-ruin of a voice belonged to Harlan Baham, the farm's crew boss. As heavily as a dropped load of lumber, he collapsed his stocky frame into the chair at the head of the wide kitchen table. With a scrape of chair legs on the linoleum, the two Sykes brothers, full-time grass cutters both of them, sat down, too. Mr. Hannigan wanted the four-hundred-acre grounds around the barns and the wastewater retention pond to be manicured as a golf course. In the Louisiana high summer, that was a dawn-to-dusk job for those guys.
“You got some hungry fellers today. Right, boys?”
Lireinne knew the Sykes twins from her years at Covington Highâbadasses who cut class with the same bored competence with which they cut the thick Bermuda grassâbut they'd never acknowledged her with so much as a nod since she'd come to work here.
That, too, was nothing new: in high school, she'd been nobody, just another fat girl with a bad reputation who lived in a trailer. Lireinne had walked the dim, noise-filled halls with her head down, nobody really seeing her unless they wanted to rag on her ass, just like here at the farm except now she had a hose instead of a backpack. In the months since she'd come to work at SGE, between walking to work and the hosing, Lireinne had lost over thirty pounds, and on her fine-boned frame thirty pounds had been a lot. Maybe that was why the Sykes twins didn't recognize her. Sometimes Lireinne looked in the mirror and almost didn't recognize herself.
Her stomach muttered a quiet complaint. It would have been great for Miz 'Cille to hand her a plate of home-cooked food, too. Most of the time nobody cooked at Lireinne's house, not except for Bud, her stepfather. Since he hardly ever got home in time for supper, she and her younger half brother, Wolf, usually got by on frozen Hungry-Man dinners, microwave pizza, and the occasional family-sized box of Popeyes chicken Bud would bring home after work. Bud's meals, when he made them, relied heavily on canned corn and Spam.
Five more minutes passed. At last the bookkeeper came down the hall from Mr. Costello's office. Although she'd seen him around from time to time, Lireinne had never met the CFO. She didn't expect to, though, because he was upper management. Hell, except for being a name on the payroll, she was sure he wouldn't know who she was even if he ran over her with his Lexus. The air was rare up there.
“Here you go,” the bookkeeper said, handing Lireinne her pay envelope. “Don't spend it all in one place.” Jackie said this same lame-ass thing every payday, her smooth brown face masked by a smile that never quite reached her eyes.
And like every payday, Lireinne took her money without a word. Stuffing the envelope into the pocket of her too-big athletic shorts, she trudged past the table of men to the back door, ready to begin her long, hot walk home.
Her hand was on the doorknob when Harlan jerked his loose-jowled head up from his plate.