Friday, August 07, 2015

A TALK WITH HENRY - a short story

I'd driven past that certain Interstate off-ramp more times than I cared to count. This day was different. Something took control, guiding me down a winding southern byway to a place I'd buried beneath the shifting sands of time. I soon realized it was a journey I'd long anticipated.

Pitted country blacktop soon became a tree-lined boulevard leading to a college rectangle. I stopped, got out, and stared. Little had changed in twenty years. Visions of the old college, devoid of even a single student, assaulted my brain, and I couldn't turn away.

Waning summer had left a pall in the air, the place deserted except for a pigeon pecking at a cigarette butt, and a lone jogger bent over in a huff. A lazy water sprinkler did little more than cast slow motion rainbows against the sidewalk. If the campus had been a corpse, then I was a curious child peeking through the mortuary window. A horn honking behind me broke my trance.

Just off campus, I found what had drawn me—a barroom catering to college students. It caused my broken crux of faded memory to flash like southern lightning. After a gasp of humid breath, I wheeled into the parking lot.

Except for a coat of garish paint, the building was little changed. The same railing of rusted steel surrounded the parking lot with pea gravel and broken oyster shells. Faded warehouses framed either side. Mike's Place flashed in purple and gold lettering from a neon sign. For a moment, I thought I was at the wrong place. But only for a moment.

A weather-beaten sign on the roof proclaimed the name I remembered. Trianon. It beckoned me from the car and I hurried to accept its invitation.

Hot Louisiana sun sucked oxygen from my lungs as I strolled across the parking lot. An explosion of trashcans erupted on the side of the building, followed by a brindle cat, screeching as he bounded from the heap. The big tom skipped past me in a frightened sideways motion, then disappeared in a rush behind the building. The trash lid revolved like a percussive top before falling silent on broken concrete.

Silence returned me to reality when I reached the black-painted door. Light-headed from the heat, or maybe suffocating demons from my past, I grabbed the handle and pulled. Icy refrigerated air blasted my face. Engulfing me in a dry wave, it sent a chill down my neck, reviving memories of many sweltering southern summers.

"Come in heah," the little man behind the bar drawled.

I took a quick glance around the room. Things had changed. Once dark, walls were now vivid white, decorated with black stripes. Fluorescent brightness, reminiscent of a New York bistro, replaced the dim coolness of my memory. I sat on a tall stool and waited for the smiling bartender.

He had a crooked grin and mortician's complexion, his shirt the color of a typewriter ribbon. White double-pleated linen pants matched the barroom's theme and connected diamonds decorated his tie. When he smiled, his eyes focused on a spot between my eyes.

"What can I get you, big guy?" he said.

Continuing to polish a glass with his white cloth, he waited for my answer. I looked at pictures of colorful specialty drinks taped to the smoked-glass mirror behind him. It only took me a moment to point to a picture.

"Hurricane. House specialty. Three-fifty with the souvenir glass. Two-fifty without." he said.

"With."

“You bet,” he said with a wink. “Everybody needs a memory. Where you from?"

"Oklahoma," I answered, more interested in the bar than conversation.

"Oweeee, boomer sooner! What'cha do up there?"

"Work in the oil patch."

"Got a cousin in Enid in oil," he said above the whining blender. "Jake Perkins. Know him?"

My shake of the head didn't surprise him. He continued pouring the icy pink concoction into a large glass decorated in reds and greens. Adding a straw, cherry and slice of orange, he slid it across the polished counter.

"Not too fast," he said. “Name's Mike. What’s yours?"

"John Tolliver."

"What brings you to town, Mr. John?"

"I went to school here, years ago."

With a knowing grin, he returned to his aimless glass polishing. "Summer vacation," he said. "Ain't many people around right about now."

"When I lived here, an old black man waited bar."

"Henry," he said. "Died a few years back."

Before I could reply a couple entered, sitting on the opposite end of the long counter. The man made a production of lighting his companion's cigarette as Mike popped the cotton cloth across his arm.

"Yell if you can handle another," he said.

Hot and thirsty, I sipped the syrupy drink and pivoted on the stool to have a look around. Then, either the rum, or the moment nailed me. Maybe both. Like a motion picture fading into another scene, my imagination began recreating the room as I'd remembered it. Somewhere in my brain's recesses, fluorescent lighting dimmed and the walls began to darken. Jarring ring of pinball machines in back and labored strains of Mick Jagger began emanating from a jukebox.

Scratched marble and corroded chrome replaced Mike's white plastic tables. His black and white tile had become dark, oiled wood. Blinking twice, I turned around.

Gone were the bartender and his two customers, replaced in my mind by an old black man with short, snowy white hair and a tiny mustache. A bow tie girded the collar of his starched white shirt as he polished a glass with a soft cloth clutched in his gnarled hands. When he spotted me, he pushed his wire-framed glasses up on his forehead, leaving two burnished dents in the sides of his nose. He grinned, revealing a full set of shining teeth still firmly set in his sunken cheeks. I stared in disbelief.

"Henry? That you?"

"Sure is. Where you been?"

"Away. I wasn't sure you'd be here."

Henry's chuckle dissolved into a rheumatic cough. He stopped polishing the glass, leaning for a moment against the bar.

"Where else would I be? Ol' Henry's always here."

It was no lie. Henry had seemed a permanent fixture of the place. As much as its worn stools and dark wood. I couldn't recall visiting the Trianon without seeing his ageless face behind the bar.

"What'cha gonna have?"

"Draw one," I said.

Winking, Henry took a frosted mug from the freezer, filling it from the tap behind the bar until a foamy head poured over the lip.

"You remembered," he said.

I did remember. During my seventeenth year and first visit to the Trianon, I'd found myself anxious about what to order.

"Beer," I'd said.

"What kind of beer?" Henry asked, staring over his wire-rims.

"Tap," I'd said, spying the spigot.

"You mean a draw. Next time you want a beer, just say Henry, draw one. That's all you gotta do."

I smiled as the recollection evoked a much deeper memory that sent a melancholy wave cresting across my bow.

"Your lady friend never came," he said, handing me the draw.

"No."

The loose layer of ebony skin on his neck wriggled. I nodded when he said, “You made it anyway, didn't you?"

Once, long ago, I'd tutored a girl in math. Not just any girl. The homecoming queen. A gorgeous young woman that wouldn't have otherwise noticed a certain shy sophomore. She was flunking math and resorted to asking for my help. When she aced the course, her warm kiss thrilled me. Enough so that I managed a stammered invitation to her for a beer at the Trianon. I waited alone until the place closed, hoping for an explanation that, like my date, never arrived. I remembered Henry’s commiseration as I sipped the draw.

"She musta got sick or something."

We both knew she hadn’t. Didn't matter because the old man had helped ease me through the crisis. It was a moment I'd never forgotten.

"Getcha another?"

My eyes popped open. I leaned against the counter for support, trying to focus on the smiling man bedecked in black and white. Henry was gone, as was the dark interior of the bar. I gasped for a reply to his question.

“No," I finally said, seeing the empty Hurricane glass. “How much do I owe you?"

“Three-fifty," he said.

Handing him a five I started for the door, advising him to keep the change.

“Wait up," he said. "You forgot your glass."

“Keep it,” I said. "I don't need it now."

He scratched his head and returned to wiping the bar as I walked out the door.

Glaring sunlight, along with a blast of humid air, struck me square in the face when I stepped outside. Still light-headed from three ounces of rum, I wobbled back to the car, my dilated eyes burning from barroom smoke. I found the brindle tomcat perched on the hood.

He bounded off in a single fluid motion, finally stopping at a safe distance to yawn and lick his paws. After stretching, the feral prince  strolled away to view the garbage cans awaiting his afternoon inspection.

As I drove away, I watched him in the rear-view mirror until his graceful image melted into a warm, summer daydream.

END


Eric Wilder is the author of the French Quarter Mystery Series. If you liked A Talk With Henry, please check out more of his writing on his AmazonBarnes & Noble, and iBook author pages

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

PRAIRIE THUNDER - a short story

Buck McDivit is my Oklahoma cowboy detective, and the protagonist in Ghost of a Chance and Bones of Skeleton Creek. Hope you like him.

***

Heavy June rains had raised the humidity well above normal. Buck McDivit felt it as he pulled into the thoroughbred horse ranch north of Oklahoma City. The horses issued a noisy acknowledgment of his appearance when he entered the large barn.

“Sorry, gang. You’ll get your oats after I clean up a bit.”

Buck took the stairs to the upper level. A narrow walkway encircled the large structure. It provided passage to several luxury suites often used by jockeys and visiting horse buyers. The owner, Mrs. Virginia O’Meara rented one of the suites to Buck for almost nothing. In return, he fed the horses and watched after them. He’d often wanted to bring home a girlfriend to see the place, but knew Mrs. O’Meara had a crush on him. Perhaps the motivation for the cheap rent.

Mrs. O’Meara had a much younger boyfriend that spent little time in Oklahoma City. A wary man, he kept a jealous eye on his wealthy girlfriend whenever he came to town. Trouble Buck didn’t need. He hadn’t dated anyone lately extraordinary enough to chance losing his happy home, though he did have someone in mind.

Blood on his hands disappeared into the marble bathroom vanity. Besides his work as a P.I., he often assisted the Logan County death investigator. Earlier, he’d worked a messy murder just north of Guthrie, a quaint bed and bath town north of the City. The phone rang as he dried his hands. It was Doc Halsey, the Logan County death investigator. Halsey was a veterinarian. That didn’t matter much in Logan County.

“We got another homicide, this time in Felony Flats.”

“Do I have time to feed the horses?”

“Make time. This one ain’t going no place.”

Buck did his feeding and then hurried up Coltrane, past Waterloo Road. Felony Flats had earned its name. A preacher intent on something other than salvation had purchased cheap land, and then built even cheaper houses on it. He carried the note for anyone that could sign their name, and more than a few that couldn’t. The houses fell apart after a few years. The residents, many of them only a step or two ahead of the law, never protested.

Waterloo Road, the county line, is too far north to worry Oklahoma County police. It’s also far enough south of Guthrie to provide little interest to the Logan County Sheriff. Bad things often happened in Felony Flats. Tonight, the name fitted the area well. Darkness blanketed the neighborhood as Buck parked his “Cowboy Coupe” in front of a ramshackle mobile home. A body awaited inside.

Broken brick littered the front yard. Someone had begun laying a barbecue pit. It was far from finished. A golden moon shined through thin cloud cover. Fireflies lit the pathway to the mobile home as a chorus of tree frogs heralded his appearance. Long after dark, it was still hot. He found Doc Halsey squatting beside the body of a large man, two Logan County deputies looking on with tired eyes.

“Johnny Big Shoe,” Halsey said. “Never thought he’d end up like this.”

Pulling on a pair of latex gloves, Buck knelt beside Doc Halsey. Without asking what had happened, he cocked Big Shoe’s head and touched the clotted wound behind his left ear.

“Blunt trauma,” Halsey said. “Someone nailed him from behind with something jagged and heavy.
Been dead since last night. His cousin, Austin Big Shoe, found the body.”

“Where is he now?”

“Guthrie, for questioning. Our number one suspect, to hear the Sheriff tell it.”

“Doesn’t make much sense. Why did he call the police if he’s the killer?”

“And wait twelve hours before doing it?” Doc Halsey added. “Don’t have a clue, but then again that’s not my job. Not yours, either.”

Buck glanced around the room, noticing the many Indian art paintings. A bare spot over the ratty sofa cried out for attention. Yellowed walls of a chain smoker outlined the former location of a missing painting. Sheriff Farnsworth entered the squalid mobile home before Buck could digest this information.

“Bag him,” Farnsworth said. “Austin confessed. No need to proceed any further with your investigation.”

Farnsworth glanced at Buck as if he were about to stomp a cockroach when he asked, “What’s the motive, Sheriff?”

“Them two’s feuded for years. Started in high school. They had designs on the same gal. They couldn't tolerate each other.”

“Then what was Austin doing here?” Buck asked.

“Came to kill him, I guess,” Sheriff Farnsworth said, dusting his hands as he started for the door. “Whatever, Austin confessed, and his fate is out of my hands.”

Buck knew better than to pursue the questioning. So did Doc Halsey. Lowering his eyes, he began wrapping the deceased man in a plastic body bag as the two deputies followed Farnsworth out the door. Halsey waited until he heard tires slipping in loose gravel.

“You’ll get us both fired if you aren’t careful.”

“When I was on the O.C.P.D., we checked things out with a lot more care. There’s enough evidence here to prove the case, one way or the other.”

“This ain’t Oklahoma County, Buck. What happens in Felony Flats stays in Felony Flats. There ain't no slick city lawyers here to get a guilty man off death row.”

Buck just shook his head. “Or an innocent man. What’s the story on all the paintings?”

“Johnny Big Shoe was an artist. I own some of his paintings myself. He never hit the big time. Maybe he will, now that he’s dead.”

Two men in a county transport truck retrieved Johnny Big Shoe's body. Doc Halsey supervised the loading, and then walked over to Buck’s truck.

“Forget this one. Go home and get some rest.”

***
Buck took half of Doc Halsey’s advice. That night, he got enough sleep for the first time in a week. A good thing because the horses were in no mood for late feeding two days in a row. Next morning, some of the stalls needed mucking. He’d finished a surveillance job the previous day. Despite Doc Halsey’s advice, he decided to visit the Logan County jail.

Farnsworth figured into Buck’s decision to take the day off. Sheriff Farnsworth’s daughter, Carla, worked for the Logan County Sheriff’s Department. She smiled when he entered the front door. With blond hair braided into a sexy pigtail, she had the bright looks of a California surfer girl.

“To what do we owe this pleasure?” she asked as Buck approached her desk.”

“Nothing much. Just thought I’d give you another chance to go two-stepping with me Saturday night.”

“Maybe. Tom Jr. and me had a little fight last night. Don’t know if we’re broke up just yet, but it’s a definite possibility.”

“Then can I pick you up around seven Saturday night?”

“You here just to ask me out?”

“I also need to talk with Austin Big Shoe.”

“Daddy left orders for no one to see Austin.”

“I’m working for your daddy today.”

Skepticism flashed in Carla’s green eyes. “Sure about that?”

“Call and ask him if you don’t believe me.”

“Never mind,” she said. “I’ll have Roy bring him up to the visitor’s room.”

Buck walked away without a guilty conscience. A man’s life was more valuable than a little lie. Though that’s how he had it figured, he doubted Carla would see it that way.

There are no country club jails in rural Oklahoma. They’re all tough, the Logan County jail no exception. Buck waited as two jailers led Austin Big Shoe through the visitor’s room door. Clad in heavy shackles, he shuffled across concrete dressed in an orange jump suit. His wrists were cuffed, elbows manacled behind his back. Austin had two black eyes and a swollen face.

Buck didn’t smoke but kept a pack of cigarettes for just such occasions. Lighting one, he placed it between Austin’s bruised lips.

“Bad fall on the way to jail?” Buck asked. Austin likely grinned at the question. His eyes were swollen shut, and Buck couldn’t tell. “Sheriff Farnsworth said you confessed to killing Johnny.”

When Austin mumbled something indecipherable, Buck knew it was a denial. He always carried a pad and pen, a habit he’d learned from his days on the O.C.P.D. He placed the pad on the table and the pen in Austin’s hand

“I don’t believe you killed Johnny. I’ll help you, but you got to give me some information. What’s the story on the blank spot on the wall behind the couch in the trailer?”

Austin nodded. Although cuffs and manacles made movement difficult, he wrote until the jailers returned for him. Sheriff Farnsworth was talking with Carla when Buck reached the front desk.

“You liar!” Carla said.

“Get the hell out of here, McDivit,” Sheriff Farnsworth said.

Ignoring the sheriff, Buck glanced at Carla and said, “Does this mean our Saturday night date is off?”

Carla’s glare was his only answer. He rationalized that her anger didn’t matter. Still, he felt as though he’d just fallen on his sword. Despite her rejection, he had a hunch Austin was innocent, and set out to prove it before the trail became too cold. In hopes of scoring more clues, he returned to Johnny Big Shoe’s house. The smell of recent death hung in the air. No yellow crime tape encircled the house, nor was the front door locked. With Austin Big Shoe’s fate already sealed, no one cared.

The missing painting, according to Austin, was an original Charlie Red Bird. Red Bird had died of lung cancer shortly before becoming famous. The painting he’d given his friend Johnny was worth a cool quarter-million dollars. Austin’s estimate. The painting, Prairie Thunder, depicted a violent Oklahoma rainstorm. It had become a problem in Johnny’s recent divorce. His ex owned a studio in Oklahoma City’s Paseo Art District. She coveted what she considered her half of the painting.

Johnny had refused to sell it. As Buck saw it, this made her a prime suspect. The painting had occupied the back wall of the squalid mobile home, just behind Johnny’s old green couch. What caught his attention was the circular tear in the couch’s fabric. It would have defied dating except for one thing. He’d spotted several fresh droplets of blood, one within the tear. Because of the blood’s placement, he knew it had gotten there on or about the time of the circular tear. Of that, Buck had no doubt.

With this information, he headed toward Paseo District. But not before taking pictures and collecting samples of the blood droplets. The Paseo District lies just north of downtown Oklahoma City. It has a Santa Fe stucco appearance and is quite unlike any other place in the State. It’s now populated by art studios and a few southwestern style restaurants.

Much like the rest of the country, a declining economy had affected Oklahoma City. The Paseo now lay somewhere between decline and prosperity. Buck loved the pink and blue buildings.

Parking in front of Dream Catcher Studio, he found it closed for lunch. A cozy bistro across the street called The Azure Pendant beckoned. When an attractive woman, dressed in faux-buckskin, greeted him at the door, he knew he'd made a wise choice. They were the restaurant’s only occupants.

“Slow day?” Buck asked.

“Every day’s slow in the Paseo.”

“What’s for lunch?”

“Honey lime, chipotle chicken and cornmeal dumplings. To die for.”

“Twist my arm, sweet talker,” Buck said. “And I better have a Tecate in a cold mug.”

She disappeared into the back of the restaurant, returning with a mug of beer, its edges salted and topped with sliced lime.

“Beer’s on me. I’m Beth.”

“Pleased, Beth. I’m Buck. Nice place,” he said, admiring the Mexican tile and large window overlooking a picturesque patio. “You have a different accent. You’re not from around here, are you?”

Beth smiled, relishing the handsome cowboy’s blatant flirtation. “Followed my ex-husband here from Austin. He’s gone, but I stayed. What’s your story?”

“Just a lonesome cowboy that likes two-stepping on Friday nights, and cold Coors any old night. Can’t say as I’m sorry your old man is gone,” he said, noticing she wore no wedding ring.

“Hey, best thing that ever happened to me.”

Beth was friendly and had a terrific smile. She looked like an American Indian princess, or perhaps a seventies hippie. Her thatch of thick red hair and a fair complexion marked her more as Irish than Indian. She was maybe ten years older than he was. It didn’t matter. He liked redheads. Something about her set his sexual bells ringing, almost causing him to forget why he was there in the first place.

“I’ll get your chipotle chicken,” she said, breaking eye contact.

Buck’s head had begun to spin as he exchanged quips with the attractive restaurateur, and not because of the beer. After finishing the last savory bite of chicken, he said goodbye and walked across the street to the Dream Catcher Studio. An attractive woman with thick braided hair met him at the door. She didn’t need her turquoise squash blossom necklace to proclaim she was no wanna-be Native American.

“I’m Brenda Big Shoe. How may I help you?”

“Just browsing.”

She smiled. “Need help, I’ll be in back.”

Buck had no idea what he was looking for, but soon found it anyway. Brenda Big Shoe was talking with a petite woman in a blue pinstriped dress. The attractive woman, despite her spiked heels, barely reached Brenda Big Shoe’s chin. They were in a heated discussion and Buck decided to interrupt their conversation.

“Sorry to butt in, but I have a question. Have any Charlie Red Bird’s?”

The interruption surprised Brenda Big Shoe. Her smile returning, she turned and faced Buck.

“You a collector?”

“I represent a client in Nevada that has a sizeable Red Bird collection. I don’t like saying money’s no object, but if you have the right piece, then. . .”

He could see that his Pacific-sized lie had caught their attention. The short woman also smiled and extended her hand. It was then he saw the large bandage on her arm.

“I’m Diane Plimpton, art agent for many prestigious galleries on the east coast. Perhaps I can help?”

“My client has a quarter million dollars burning a hole in his pocket for just the right Red Bird. Any ideas?”

Again the two women exchanged glances. “We have an early Red Bird titled Prairie Thunder,” Diane Plimpton said. “We’re asking a half-million dollars, and it’s worth every penny. I’m sure your buyer wants to keep this as discrete as we do.”

“Can I see it?” Brenda and Diane led him to a painting the exact size as the one missing from Johnny Big Shoe’s wall. Bingo! Buck could see it all now. The two had gone to Johnny’s mobile home to bargain for the painting. Greed had overcome good sense, and an argument had ensued.

While Johnny and Brenda screamed at each other, Diane Plimpton had hit him from behind with a brick. Then she’d punctured the couch’s thin fabric with one of her sharp heels as she took the painting. A check of Diane Plimpton’s DNA would likely link her to the killing. He began backing out of the room.

“I’ll call my client and get back with you tomorrow.”

Buck knew the Logan County District Attorney. He also knew every judge on the Logan County bench. He didn’t know for a fact that Brenda and Diane were Johnny Big Shoe’s killers. Didn't matter. He had enough evidence to convince someone with authority to force Sheriff Farnsworth to at least check it out.

The Sheriff had an over inflated opinion of his own intelligence and often jumped to false conclusions. He also had an enormous ego, hated anyone proving him wrong, and he didn’t like Buck. A future with his daughter, Carla, was likely out of the question. It didn’t matter at the moment.

Instead of his truck, he returned to the Azure Pendant. When Beth met him at the door, he said, “You like to dance?”

END



Eric Wilder is the author of the Paranormal Cowboy and French Quarter Mystery Series. If you liked Prairie Thunder, please check out more of Eric's writing on his AmazonBarnes & Noble, and iBook author pages

Saturday, July 04, 2015

MOTH MADNESS - a short story

A clear New Mexico day, the sky mimicking polished turquoise pierced with veins of crystalline quartz. At the Palace of the Governors, Navajo artists sold malachite rings and squash blossom necklaces. Across the street, non-native artisans expressed their own vision in a more contemporary fashion.

The old town was alive with color. Morning glories and hollyhocks lined the street. Pastels clashing with orange berries of mountain ash and chocolate adobe. Sunflowers, pumpkins, and sacred corn crowned flat roofs.

A message on an old car painted in a splashes of bright, freehand colors, said, “Never pet a burning dog.”

Two couples meandered down the sidewalk, stopping to examine silver baubles and turquoise rings. Finally, Pamela said, “What now, gang?”

Pamela’s husband Don winked at Raymond his male counterpart and said, “A drink at the nearest bar?”

“Honestly, Don,” Pamela chided. “Has the town’s ambiance not caught up with you yet?”

“Just the gas from last night’s frijoles,” he said.

Raymond added, “So spicy, there’s a fart in every bite.”

Pamela frowned and walked ahead in silent protest. Don winked at Raymond and Julie, puffing his cheeks in Dizzie Gillespie fashion to show his distaste for the local fare.

“Slow down, Dear,” he said, words dripping with mischievous inflection. She didn’t, and they hurried after her.

After lunch at a courtyard restaurant, Julie pushed her plate aside and asked, “Where to?”

Don stretched in his chair and yawned. “A nice nap?”

Pamela sipped her mineral water and smiled. “It’s the last day of our vacation, Don.”

“So what?”

“This is the center of New Age. We can’t leave without at least visiting a channeler and summoning a lost spirit.”

Don grinned, playing with his gray mustache. “Dear, you’re crazy.”

Pamela ignored him, turning to Julie and Raymond. “What do you two think?”

Julie glanced at Raymond, “I don’t know. Sounds silly to me.”

“It’s not silly,” Pamela shot back. “If you think it is, Don and I will go alone.”

Don glanced at Julie and Raymond. Then, winking at Raymond, he asked, “How will we decide which channeler to consult, Dear?”

“We’ll ask the waiter.”

Don grinned. “Sounds logical.”

Pamela ignored him. Raymond glanced at Julie and smiled. When the waiter with the Brooklyn accent returned Pamela asked, “Can you direct us to the best channeler in Santa Fe?”

“Depends,” he said.

Her curiosity piqued Julie asked, “On what?”

“How much you’re paying.”

His terse reply raised Pamela’s eyebrows. “Are there some that much better than others?”

“No, but for the right price, I’ll do it myself.”

This time, no one stifled their laughter. Pamela folded her arms, sat up straight and frowned.

“I wasn’t making a joke,” she said, reprimanding the young man.

“Well,” he paused, “If I’m not good enough for you, you might try the Wolf.”

“The wolf?”

“Steinhart, Wolf Steinhart.”

Bob chortled, “Wolf Steinhart?”

“Who’s Wolf Steinhart?” Julie and Raymond asked in unison.

“If you want to know about New Age, Wolf is your man.”

Don leaned back in his chair, folding his big hands behind his head. “Where might we find Mr. Steinhart?”

The waiter glanced at his watch. “Right now, he’s at the Pagan Bar.”

Don’s pale blue eyes widened. “He keeps a schedule?”

The waiter grinned. “Nah, he’s there most of the time.”

***

They found the Pagan Bar empty and eclectic, even by Santa Fe standards. Small dragons hung from the ceilings. A tree grew behind the bar. Louis Armstrong’s picture decorated the wall, along with crosses, lizards and stained glass dragons. A sign said, “This is the year of the dragon.”

A lone man occupied a pink stone table, his head resting on his arm. As they stood in a semi-circle around him, he began snoring at a level that would have made a tic on the chart at the nearest seismic station.

Don grinned and tried to rouse him. “Ahem!”

A louder snort erupted from the man’s nostrils and Pamela suggested, “Maybe we should come back later.”

“Not on your life,” Don said.

Raymond grabbed her elbow to prevent her exit. “He’s right. Let’s wake him.”

Raymond shook the man’s shoulder. Steinhart brushed away Raymond’s hand like someone swatting an annoying fly. A voice startled them. “You wanna talk with the Wolf.”

A dark-skinned lady wearing a bright red dress draped low over her shoulders stood looking at them, hand on her hips.

“Why yes, as a matter-of-fact.” Don said.

“Then waita minute.”

She disappeared behind the bar, returning with a shot of tequila which she placed beside the man’s head. The Wolf snorted and opened his red-rimmed eyes, glancing up at the five people standing over him. He drained the shot in one gulp and tossed the glass into the adobe kiva behind him. When it shattered, he winced and massaging his left temple.

“Whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?”

“I’m Don Brabham, and this is my wife Pamela. These lovely people are Julie Hamilton and Raymond West.”

The man stretched himself to his full, impressive height. Don was tall but this man taller, at least six-six.

“Wolf Steinhart,” he said, extending his hand. “At your service.”

Steinhart’s spoke with a clipped British accent, khaki shirt imparting the appearance of a big game hunter. A red stain on his shirt dispelled this initial impression. When Pamela edged to the back of the group and eyed the door, Don grabbed her arm.

“We understand you’re an expert in New Age philosophy,” Don said. “May we sit?”

“How rude of me,” Steinhart said, pulling out two of the red lacquered chairs and raising a finger to the woman in the red dress. “Ramona! Tequila and five glasses.”

The dark-skinned woman ignored his request, continuing to polish a glass. “Who’s gonna pay?”
Steinhart glanced at the group until Don raised his hand. “My treat.”

“Then make it Cuervo Gold, pretty senorita,” Steinhart said, popping all five fingers on both hands. He bent over and placed his palms on the table’s pink surface. “Ladies and gentlemen, you have found your man.”

Still beaming, Steinhart plopped down between Pamela and Julie on the pink-cushioned bonco. They wrinkled their noses and edged away as Ramona brought the tequila and five shot glasses.

“I’d rather have a glass of Chablis,” Pamela said.

Julie said, “Make mine a Coke.”

“Well, gentlemen,” Steinhart said, refraining from breaking the glass in the fireplace. “More for us.” He smacked his lips like a contented bovine and added, “My friends. You have arrived at the pith of the maelstrom, the mouth of the volcano, the eye of the needle.”

“The tail of the ass,” Don said.

Unperturbed, Steinhart continued. “Exactly what is it you wish to discover?”

“The address of a good channeler,” Don said.

Wolf’s chin dropped. “Is that all?”

“No,” Pamela said, becoming enthusiastic. “We need a guide through the mysteries of New Age.”

Wolf perked up at Pamela’s words. “A broad and demanding subject. I require a fee.”

“That’s no problem. . .” Pamela began.

Don interrupted. “How much?”

“Thirty dollars an hour and residuals,” Steinhart said.

Don squelched Pamela’s reply. “Residuals?”

Steinhart held up the bottle of tequila. Don glanced at Raymond and Julie. They smiled and blinked.

“You got it, old man,” Don said, taking the initiative.

Steinhart filled Don and Raymond’s glasses and poured another for himself. “As you mentioned,” he said, looking at Pamela. “This is the hub of New Age. The place where everyone’s karma hits the fan.” He chuckled. “In Santa Fe, experts perform diverse functions."

"Such as," Pamela said.

 Synovial fluid equalization, aura balancing, crystal healing, vibrational healing. Need I continue?"

"We're all ears," Pamela said.

 "Connective tissue polarity therapy, colon cleansing, clear light therapy, and bio-energetic synchronization.”

“More like bio-energetic money detachment,” Don quipped.

Pamela ignored her husband’s levity. “And channelers?”

“My dear lady,” Steinhart said, “There are hundreds of mystics, gurus, and spirit channelers in Santa Fe.”

Julie sipped her soda and Raymond fidgeted in his red lacquered chair. “Every waiter in town is a mystic,” Raymond said. “I'm sure most of these people are fakes preying on unsuspecting visitors.”

When he glanced away from Pamela’s glare, Steinhart nodded. “What you suggest is true, but they are here for a reason.”

Raymond asked, “What reason?”

Steinhart poured another shot and answered, “The Native Americans.”

Pamela leaned forward. “You mean Indians?”

“There are fifteen thousand Pueblo in New Mexico, along with the Navajo and Hopi. The Pueblo believe they are here, now and always. This is a fundamental view they keep because it reveals their feelings for bahana.”

“Bahana?” Don said.

“Whites. You and I. The original people have occupied this region for almost eight thousand years. Their culture is quite defined; more so than any in North America. There are things we bahana will never know.”

Julie asked, “Such as?”

“Koshare. . .”

Steinhart’s word died on his lips.

Don glanced at Raymond, then at Julie. “Koshare?”

“Powerful secret societies. Magic, both white and black. The so-called New Age practitioners gravitated here. To the Pueblo this is the center of the universe.”

Pamela’s face glowed with anticipation. “You mean these people could summon a demon, or heal a cancer?”

Wolf Steinhart nodded. “These people, as you call them, are quite capable of almost anything.”

“Then this is for real?”

“As real as you or I,” he said.

Pamela asked, “Can we experience this mysticism, or witness the summoning of a spirit?”

Don turned in his chair. “Dear, this is getting ridiculous. Let’s go back to the hotel and take a nice nap.”

Pamela glared at her husband. “You go, I’ll stay.”

Don frowned but remained seated, pouring another shot from the bottle. Raymond and Julie cast nervous glances at each other. Steinhart folded his arms, silent as he contemplated Pamela’s question.

“It’s possible,” he finally said.

Pamela glowed. “We’ll pay whatever it costs.”

“Dear lady, it’s not a question of money, though there is the matter of my small retainer.”

Don opened his wallet and handed Steinhart a Benjamin, asking, “What else is it a question of?”

“Belief,” he said, finishing his shot. “Where are you staying?”

“La Fonda,” Don said.

Wolf Steinhart glanced at his watch. “If you’re serious, I’ll pick you up in front of the hotel at five.”

***

The two couples waited, Pamela beaming, Don fidgeting. Julie looked bored as Raymond paced the sidewalk. “This is stupid, Pamela,” Don said. “Steinhart already has our money. He isn’t coming.”

“Of course he is. He’s just a little late.”

An old Land Rover pulled up to the curb, allaying Don’s doubts, Wolf Steinhart at the wheel in the same outfit as before. A broad-brimmed hat completed his big game hunter look. Raymond noted with relief he had at least changed shirts. Steinhart leaned across the front seat and opened the door with a smile.

“Pile in, good people.”

Because of his height, Don sat in the front seat. The others crowded into the back on the narrow bench. Steinhart pulled away from the curb and headed out of town.

Don asked, “Where are we going, old man?”

“First to Taos to secure a guide, and then to visit the witch.”

Julie sat in the back seat, arms folded and toe tapping. “I thought you were our guide.”

“Unfortunately, this excursion requires more than I.”

Pamela was ecstatic. “We’re visiting a witch, a real witch? Please tell us about it.”

“A practice passed through successive generations. Spanish monks introduced Catholicism to the region. Since then, the native’s belief in the spirit world has become intertwined with the Catholic view of god.”

Raymond said, “Such as?”

“The evil eye. The Pueblo and Navajo believe wizards and witches own the power to harm by gazing at you. The power of the evil eye. They wear amulets and talismans, Catholic crosses or votives to protect them from this power. They commingle Catholicism with their beliefs when they invoke spirits of the earth and moon.”

“And our visit to the witch. . .”

“A demonstration,” Steinhart said, finishing Raymond’s question. “It would take our combined lifetimes to understand this region’s mystical culture.”

Purple shadows engulfed the highway. They blended with a hazy orange sunset as they continued north to the Taos Pueblo. Steinhart entered through the back gate. In the encroaching darkness, they approached two pueblos separated by a clear creek. Both structures looked like ancient apartment complexes.

A church bounded the west end of the coyote-fenced enclosure. Steinhart crossed the narrow bridge, careful of the roaming horses and mongrel dogs. He stopped by the largest adobe structure, opened the door and stepped out.

“Wait here. I won’t be long.” Steinhart started away, but returned, as if forgetting something. He removed four crucifixes from his safari shirt and handed one to each of them.

“Wear these,” he said.

They watched him climb a ladder to an upper entrance, disappearing inside. Don glanced at the crucifix, saying. “You think this will work for a Jew?”

“Honestly, Don,” Pamela said. “Just put it on.”

Raymond nudged Julie and she bit her lip to keep from laughing. When Steinhart returned, only the stars and moon illuminated the surroundings. He wasn’t alone.

“This is Sam,” he said, introducing the young man. “He’ll lead us the rest of the way.”

Sam rode on the Land Rover’s fender to his own vehicle, an old pickup truck. Steinhart shadowed him out of the enclosure and into the darkness. They followed the highway several miles before exiting to a dirt path. It jutted into the desert, following a dry arroyo for five more miles.

Julie, Raymond and Pamela held on to their uncomfortable seats as Steinhart shadowed Sam’s truck. At the end of the arroyo, they found a single adobe cubicle, light radiating from its windows. Steinhart helped Pamela and Julie unwind from the uncomfortable back seat. The two couples waited in chilly bleakness, Sam and Steinhart soon returning from the house with a smiling boy. Steinhart took a bag of fruit from the vehicle, handing it to the lad.

“We’re just here to observe,” Steinhart said. “Please don't ask any questions.”

They followed him into the stucco house, finding a young woman standing beside a kiva fireplace. Two little girls giggled, playing ball, and jacks on the earthen floor. When they spotted the sack of fruit, they rushed with pigeon-toed gaits, demanding their share.

Peculiar objects decorated the walls. An old chrome hubcap, several jawbones of indistinct origin, and some shells. Lateral vigas supported the ceiling. Bits of hay in the walls suggested real adobe formed them, not the cement-variety used by local builders.

“This is Rachel Kucate, her daughter’s Verla and Natalie, and son Chester.”

Don, Pamela, Julie and Raymond, followed Steinhart and Sam to a room in back. An old woman sat alone in a rocking chair, a black cat at her feet. Sam closed the door behind them, a dim coal oil lamp illuminating the room. The old woman continued rocking.

The cat arched its back as it moved beneath her legs and the rockers of the chair. Though she looked the picture of antiquity, the brightness and color of her garments clashed with this notion. Withered as a corn stalk ruined by too much sun and lack of rain, a blue flowered bandanna capped her silver hair. Turquoise and silver draped from her earlobes. A flowered shawl cloaked her pink wool sweater. Twisted turquoise graced her gnarled wrist.

“I have brought visitors, Grandmother,” Sam said.

The old woman opened her eyes, one dark and old, the other green and alive. She studied the visitors as Sam brought a small table from the corner, placing it in front of her. He sat on the floor and began chanting and beating a drum he’d brought from the truck. When the old woman spoke, her almost inaudible voice quivered, and she looked straight at Don.

“You brought somethin’ for Grandmother?”

Startled by her question, Don reached for his wallet. Steinhart touched his wrist and shook his head. “She’s not asking for money.”

Confused, Don fished an old gold watch, attached to a length of frayed chain, from his pocket. Without understanding why, he placed it on the table.

“Bring me the cloud blower, my son,” she said.

Steinhart handed her the ceremonial pipe which she lighted with a thin piece of wood in the flame of the coal oil lamp. Acrid smoke of wild tobacco billowed from its bowl. After several puffs, she handed the pipe to Don. Don puffed it, coughing as the harsh smoke filled his lungs. The old woman took it from him, placing it on the table beside the watch.

Soon, her shoulders began to quake. The tremble continued up her neck until her eyes closed and head tilted backwards. Her wrinkled lips parted and emitted a moan that sounded like wind whistling through branches. Trembling enveloped her, and she shook in a wild paroxysm of movement. Her head slammed against the table so hard, Raymond thought she must have killed herself.

When Don moved to help, Steinhart’s upraised palm signaled him back. Her head thrashed against the table before finally surrendering to a few feeble palpitations. Finally, she was quiet, her motion ceasing completely. A voice spoke, her lips unmoving. The voice, coming from the bowels of her soul, sounded masculine and tinny, as if awakened from a long sleep.

“I plunged from the sky, embraced by icy blue water. Now I am free and can say goodbye little brother. Live your life in peace.”

The voice died away like an echo in an empty cavern as they watched, mollified and frozen in place. Sam stopped drumming and filled a ladle with cool water. He and Steinhart helped the old woman back into the chair and held the water to her lips until she opened her eyes.

Steinhart hugged the old woman and gave her a pouch of tobacco, then exchanged a silent farewell as he motioned them to leave. Raymond was the last out, stealing one last glance at the old woman before shutting the door behind him. He noticed the cat beneath her feet had only one eye, green and alive. In the cheery outer room, Steinhart gave Sam and Rachel twenty dollars each. Sam nodded and faded into the darkness.

“That’s the strangest experience I’ve ever had,” Pamela said, returning along the dirt path to the Land Rover.

“Amen to that,” Julie said.

Raymond asked, “What’s the story on those people?”

“The old woman is a witch, as is her granddaughter Rachel and the two little girls. They suffer from genetic epilepsy, and the foot abnormality you noticed. Navajos call the epilepsy moth madness—witch frenzy. This is because in the throes of a seizure, they move their limbs like the wings of a moth near a flame. The Navajo believe women possessed by moth madness are magical and able to converse with spirits. What you saw is its own explanation.”

“Fascinating,” Pamela said. “Whose voice did we hear and what did the message mean?”

“Maybe you should ask your husband,” Steinhart said.

Confused by the Wolf’s reply, Pamela put her hand on Don’s shoulder. “Don, are you all right?”

His usual joviality had flown out the window. “The watch I gave the old woman was my older brother’s, a tail gunner during the war. His plane crashed over Germany, his body never recovered. We were close, and I never told him goodbye when he left to go overseas.”

Pamela started to comment. Caught instead between reality and a dusty desert road, she reclined against the bouncing seat of the Land Rover. With his arm around Julie, Raymond gazed at the sky. As he did, a shooting star lighted the darkness before disappearing forever behind a distant mesa.

END


Eric Wilder is the author of the French Quarter Mystery Series. If you liked Moth Madness, please check out more of Eric's writing on his AmazonBarnes & Noble, and iBook author pages

Friday, July 03, 2015

DAYS OF DISCO

In 1977, I was freshly divorced and working in a high-stress job as a petroleum geologist—"A new drilling prospect every week or you’re fired!" Nights would find me in a disco called Clementine’s, a club located in the basement of Oklahoma City’s Penn Square Mall. The place was dark, the music loud, the drinks and women loose. I was usually inebriated, or well on my way to getting there.

Yes, it was in the post-Vietnam, pre-AIDS era. Practically every night I'd spend hours line dancing to the anthems of Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer, and KC and the Sunshine Band. 1977 was the year I first saw the movie Saturday Night Fever and fell in love with the music of the Bee Gees.

There were two ways to enter Clementine’s: walking down a narrow flight of stairs, or sliding down a chute. Either way got you to a living fantasy.

You’d wind up in a huge open room illuminated by a rotating disco ball, colored strobe lights that warped your reality even if you weren’t yet drunk or stoned, and a few discreetly placed floor lamps that provided little more than dim haze. Most of all, there was a pressing multitude of warm bodies and the sounds of disco belting out the message of freedom, expression and free love.

A huge bar extended across the front of the room where three bartenders served drinks as fast as they could pour them. The dance floor of diamond-shaped black and white tiles was rarely empty; the occasional cooling fingers of vapor rising from grids in the floor made the swaying dancers seem like uninhibited creatures from Hell’s nether regions.

The dance floor was like hypnosis, insanity, and blasting sound. Bodies crushed together amid the beat of drums as ancient as the continent of Africa. Once, across the crowded dance floor, I saw a beautiful young woman staring at me. Our eyes locked. We danced toward each other. She passed me a note with her phone number. When I called her the next day she invited me for spaghetti. I showed up with flowers and a bottle of wine.

Marti was her name. At least that's what I'll call her. A single mother, she had a five year old son named Chris. We ate pasta and drank wine by candlelight. I helped her with the dishes and then she put Chris to bed. We made love in her bedroom.

"I want to thank you," was her unexpected reply as we lay in her little bed.

"My pleasure," I said.

"You don’t understand," she explained, sensing my flippancy. "I’m in remission from cervical cancer. You're the first man I’ve slept with since having the surgery. I’ve been so worried I would never have feelings again. You proved me wrong. I thank you for that."

Confused and too young, or stupid, to understand the depths of her message, I contributed little more than small talk before saying goodbye and disappearing into the night. I never saw her again and I don’t think she wanted or needed me to.

Those were the days of disco, my days of disco, for whatever that means. Some people have suggested that disco isn’t cool and people that liked it were somehow less than intelligent. I don’t think so. It was a magical era and we were just as human and vulnerable as any young person today.

And I know this. Whenever I hear Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer or the Bee Gees, I find myself back on that same dark dance floor, with wisps of vapor cooling sweat dripping down my neck as I pulsate to a message of love and coming together. And when I do, I feel like sliding down that chute.

END



Eric Wilder is the author of the French Quarter Mystery Series. Check out all his books on AmazonBarnes & Noble, and iBook

Saturday, June 27, 2015

WILD MAGNOLIAS - a short story

It's Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Wyatt Thomas, the French Quarter's favorite private investigator, finds himself in a whole heap of trouble.

**********

Mardi Gras rocked the French Quarter. A man on the sidewalk reminded me as much when I almost tripped over him. Still in costume, he busy throwing up in the gutter. It didn’t seem to bother the two speckled pigeons grousing over the cigarette butt he'd dropped.

I had something else on my mind as I hurried down Royal Street—a new client. The prospect of a paying customer, and bone-chilling March wind whistling down my neck, added purpose to my steps. The breeze carried the damp odor of mold, mildew and old masonry and reminded me I should have taken an allergy pill before leaving my apartment.

The short walk took me to a shop named Wild Magnolias, the name alluding to the all-black marching club that dressed in garish costumes during Mardi Gras. Wild Magnolias sold books, but wasn't exactly a Barnes & Noble Superstore. The woman behind the sales counter dropped her Picayune when the bell on the door rang, her relieved smile indicating she was glad to see me.

“I'm Sally Barthelemy. You must be Wyatt Thomas.”

“I got your message,” I said, shaking her hand. “How can I be of service?”

“I have a job for you. Please come with me and I'll explain.”

Sally Barthelemy didn't realize her announcement was music to my ears. I followed her down the hall to a room in back, a room not only bolted but also triple-locked. She opened the door using keys on a large brass ring, and then re-locked all the bolts once we were inside. Sitting behind an antique desk, she directed me to an empty chair.

“You're familiar with my little shop, Mr. Thomas?”

“I presume you're a bookseller.”

“Outside's just a façade, a few magazines and slick best sellers for the hicks from Beaumont and yokels from Little Rock. It's not where I make my real money.”

“I see,” I said, even though I didn’t.

Sally Barthelemy pointed to her racks of old books and said, “I generate my real money in this room. Wild Magnolias specializes in rare first editions, especially books with a New Orleans connection. That brings me to why I need your help.”

I glanced around the room as Sally Barthelemy explained. It was quite different from the shop in front. Instead of movie posters and linoleum, expensive wallpaper and a Persian rug dominated the decor. Real art, not cheap lithographs, hung from the walls. I began to appreciate the three locks on the door.

“These volumes are valuable,” she said. “I'll give you an example. Faulkner's first novel, The Marble Faun, is the type of book I sell. In perfect condition and with dust jacket intact it might go for ten to twenty thousand dollars. I have such a volume. It bears a special inscription, signed in New Orleans, in the author's own handwriting. One of my collectors is ready and willing to pay fifty thousand for it.”

“So what's your problem?”

“Someone took it and I need you to retrieve it for me.”

Sally Barthelemy poured herself a glass of sherry while she waited for my answer.

“I'm not a cop, Ms. Barthelemy.”

“And that's why I called you and not the police,” she said. “The bandit is also a valued customer of mine, one of the few collectors I allow inside this room.”

“That's unfortunate, but you know what they say about roses.”

“This rose happens to rank at the top of the City's social order. By local definition, she can only be a rose. The person that took my book is Lillie Hebert.”

Sally Barthelemy waited for my reaction and got a raised eyebrow for her efforts. Lillie Hebert was more than a person at the top of the city's social order. She was old guard, one of the elite, her family among the richest in the state, her father a former King of Rex. Mrs. Hebert had even reigned as Queen of Comus. Now I understood Sally's plight.

“If I accuse Lillie Hebert, I’ll be the one that ends up ostracized.”

“So what do you want me to do?”

“Get the book from her and return it to me.”

I paused before saying, “Any suggestions on how I might go about it?”

Sally topped up her sherry. “Mrs. Hebert has done this before. She's old and senile, as well as rich. I'm sure she slipped the book in her purse while looking at something else, and likely doesn't even remember having it.”

I was being facetious when I said, “So you want me to break into her house and get it for you?”

“I think not. Mrs. Hebert is expecting delivery today of a book I obtained for her. You make the delivery. While she is busy serving milk and cookies, slip the Faun into your jacket and return it to me. She'll never miss it.”

“Why not just do it yourself?”

Miss Barthelemy made a face and dusted her hands, as if she could not bother herself with such a banal task.

“My assistant usually takes care of these little problems for me. He’s on vacation. I need the book today and will pay you five hundred dollars to retrieve it for me. Are you interested or not?”

My landlord and all my other creditors already knew the answer to Sally Barthelemy's question.

***

Weather had grown warmer as the streetcar rumbled down St. Charles Avenue to the Garden District. I stared out the open window as masked revelers, heading for the French Quarter. Sally Barthelemy was the daughter of a prominent local family and graduate of Sophie Newcomb. She had served as a Maid of Court during the Rex Ball, and had “come out” with a group of important debutantes. I understood why she didn’t want to rock the boat of local social acceptance.

Almost noon when I exited the streetcar, I joined the crowd awaiting an approaching parade. A long night of festivities would conclude at midnight. It was Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras day. Before it ended, people would make love, fight and some, perhaps, even die. I was only interested in earning a much-needed five-hundred dollars. Lillie Hebert's large house was a long walk from St. Charles Avenue. I was alone and uncomfortable, carrying the valuable copy of Faulkner's Mosquitoes. When I reached her house, I was hobbling from a rock in my shoe. When Mrs. Hebert answered the door, I saw she was much older than the age suggested by her society pictures in the Picayune.

“Don't you have a car, young man?”

“No ma'am. I use public transportation. It sometimes has its disadvantages.”

“Well come in and take a load off.” Lillie Hebert led me down the hall. “Have a seat and I'll get you a glass of water.”

Plopping down in a divan, I stared at the large sitting room as Mrs. Hebert disappeared into the kitchen. The house was huge, gorgeous and worth millions. New Orleans is now the third largest film-making Mecca in the world. Mrs. Hebert likely didn’t realize that many of her neighbors were movie stars. Builders of her house had constructed it using the finest Italian tile and polished cypress. It was one of the brightest jewels in the fabled Garden District. The old woman returned before I had a chance to inspect her floor-to-ceiling bookshelf. When she appeared with no water and confused look, I understood how she might have taken Sally Barthelemy's book. She wasn't even suspicious of me, a complete stranger.

She did finally chirp, “Who are you, young man?”

“Wyatt Thomas,” I said, standing. “I brought you a book from Wild Magnolias.”

Lillie Hebert's eyes squinted as she studied me. “James usually brings my books.”

“He's on vacation this week. I came in his place.”

“Oh! Well would you like a glass of water?”

“I'm fine, thank you,” I said, handing her the copy of Mosquitoes. “You have so many great books. Mind if I take a look?”

“You honor me,” Mrs. Hebert said, beaming.

As I glanced through the volumes in the bookshelves, I thought about Lillie Hebert. She could have passed as Sally Barthelemy's mother. The resemblance was remarkable. Both were tall and with dark eyes and olive skin. Mrs. Hebert, like Sally, wore her hair in a bun, though hers was gray instead of jet. Unlike svelte Sally Barthelemy, the old woman sported a few extra pounds. Her flowered frock with no discernible waistline did little to hide them.

I spent the next half-hour letting Lillie Hebert show me the love of her life—her collection of first editions. When I finally managed to pry myself out the front door, I had Sally Barthelemy's copy of The Marble Faun beneath my jacket. Despite knowing the book was not the old woman’s property, I still felt like a two-dollar chump. As the old green streetcar rumbled back downtown, I realized Sally Barthelemy had been wrong about one thing. Lillie Hebert had not offered me any milk and cookies.

***

Culotta's is a quaint little restaurant near the river. The gumbo is good and you can watch tugboats and oil steamers heading to and from the Gulf while you eat. I was sitting by the picture window, enjoying my gumbo and watching natural gas flare on the horizon. I had just topped my gumbo with extra Tabasco when Detective Anthony Nicosia pushed through the crowded cafe. Outside, excited sea gulls chased a trash boat down the river.

Tony motioned a waiter and ordered a Dixie. When it arrived, he pushed aside the frosted glass and drank straight from the green and white can. After wiping his mouth with the back of his arm, he plopped his chubby elbows on the table and stared across the frosty can at me.

“Bowl of gumbo, Tony?” I said, breaking the uncomfortable silence.

Tony was five-eight or nine and at least forty pounds overweight. His Irish Channel accent sounded straight from the Bronx, even though he’d likely never visited New York. He made continual swipes at any loose black hair daring to dangle on his forehead. When he finished his beer, he asked for another, his elbows never leaving the red and white plastic Purina tablecloth.

Finally he said, “You in deep trouble, Cowboy.”

“More than usual?”

“I ain't kidding. Some old woman filed charges on you downtown. Says you stole a real valuable book. And, Cowboy, this old lady has the stroke to send you to Angola for a lengthy vacation. We already got calls from the Mayor, the D.A. and the Governor. Couldn't you have been a little more selective and robbed one of them blind beggars up on Camp Street?”

"I didn't steal anything," I said.

"Then maybe you better give me your story."

Tony stared out the window at a passing towboat, shaking his head as I explained how I'd earned the cash still warming my wallet.

“We already contacted Miss Barthelemy and she says she never heard of you. She even invited us to search her shop if we thought she had the book. We didn't bother ’cause she's the Chief's first cousin.”

“This is a mistake, Tony,” I said, wiping hot sauce from my mouth with one of Mama Culotta's checkered napkins.

“May-be,” he said, drawling the word. “But I still got to take you in.” He smirked and said, “The Chief is looking forward to grilling you himself.”

“You forgetting the Saints tickets I gave you last season?”

“I ain't forgetting nothing, Cowboy. The Chief gave me orders to bring you in. That’s what I’m here to do. At least he sent me instead of a squad car.”

Like Tony, I had known the chief for many years. Sending a homicide detective to bring me in was his way of attempting to diffuse an explosive situation. Even though I was appreciative of his concern, I still didn't want to go to jail.

“Maybe you didn't find me,” I said.

“I'll get my short-hairs trimmed if I don't.”

“Give me until noon tomorrow. I'll come in on my own, I promise.”

Tony thought a moment before agreeing. ”Okay, but don’t screw me, Cowboy,” he said, chugging his Dixie and exiting the café without as much as a backwards wave.

I felt quite the fool as I walked out of Culotta's and headed toward the noise issuing from the French Quarter. Sally Barthelemy had suckered me and I had fallen for it like one of her hicks from Beaumont, or yokels from Little Rock. Despite the frivolity of Fat Tuesday, I was not a happy camper. Crowds of masked revelers thickened as I neared Canal Street. Mardi Gras, along with all the parties, festivities and gaiety associated with it, had begun weeks ago. Most of the lesser carnival clubs had already had their balls and parades. The ones reserved for Fat Tuesday were the richest and oldest.

One giant parade was in progress. Masked krewe members aboard colorful floats were busy tossing beads and doubloons to the crowd. The parade was snaking toward the Municipal Auditorium where the Rex and Comus Balls would soon begin. Lowering my shoulders, I pushed into the crowd.

As I did, masses of temporarily insane humanity, grabbing for tossed beads and souvenir doubloons, engulfed me. An inebriated college girl encircled her bare arms around my neck. Balancing her mask in one hand and a half-empty whiskey bottle in the other, she planted a sultry kiss full on my lips. Then, with a wanton smile, she yanked down her blouse to show me her lipstick-smeared breasts. I found the world's largest street party even livelier when I reached Bourbon Street.

Balcony drunks were tossing dollar bills as the frenzied masses fought for the floating bills. Crowds thinned when I turned off Bourbon and made my way through the relative darkness shrouding Rue Royal. Noise on Bourbon Street was a distant peal when I reached Bertram Picou's bar. The place was rocking, regulars, hip locals, and lucky tourists who had stumbled in by accident having their own celebration.

I was looking for someone in particular. Regulars that might have information and advice I needed.

“My man,” Bertram Picou said, giving me a high five from behind the bar. “I knew we'd see your homely face in here before the night ended. What can I do you for?”

Bertram's canned coon-ass accent was straight from the bayou. Before I could answer, he poured me a glass of pink lemonade from a special jug he kept just for me in the ice bin. Picou's bar was eclectic. Panties, bras, and boxer shorts hung from the silvered mirror behind the bar, or the ceiling above it. Mementos of lost inhibitions. Something tourists, and even locals, often misplaced in the French Quarter. I took a drink from the frosted glass and stared around the room at the throng of happy maskers.

“Good crowd, Bertram,” I said. “Something going on I should know about?”

“You don't already know, you be one cold fish,” he said in his inimitable Cajun accent.

A blond woman in a revealing pirate's outfit crawled over the bar, interrupting our conversation. When she proceeded to hump Bertram's thigh, I excused myself and pushed through the boisterous crowd to a booth in back. The two people I’d come to see smiled and let me slide in beside them.

“Wyatt, my man. How the hell are you?”

“Tolerable, Armand. You?”

“Smoking, man.”

Armand was doing just that, the pungent odor of marijuana mingling with stale air in the bar's dark corner. No one seemed to mind. I had known Armand for twenty years and I still didn’t know his last name.. He was more than eccentric. His shiny black blazer draped the black turtleneck sweater strangled around his scrawny throat. He also had slick black hair and a pointed goatee. He always wore black. His clothes pinned him as a throwback to the fifties—a stereotypical beatnik, if such an animal still existed. He wasn't alone.

Armand's companion hugged his arm, her velvet miniskirt riding high on thick, café au lait thighs. An imposing black woman, Madam Toulouse Joubert was Armand's physical antithesis. She had coarse facial features and shoulders like a linebacker. Almost blond, her bouffant hair pointed toward the ceiling. She was a woman that loved bright colors, and her puffed lips were red as oxidized blood.

Armand and Madam Toulouse knew more about the Quarter, and old New Orleans, than any two people I knew. She had long worked in the Notarial Archives, once located in the basement of the District Court. The Archives provided her access to the detailed history of the City from its beginning. She had expanded on this knowledge through the years. Now, she could quote the membership roles of the exclusive Boston Club and tell you who was in line to serve as next Queen of Comus.

Armand, a collector and seller of art and antiquities, complemented Madam Toulouse's knowledge. He knew the moneyed and powerful in the Big Easy on a first name basis. Together, they were formidable. I ordered them fresh drinks and explained my situation. When I finished my story, Armand shook his head in sympathy and killed his shot of Cuervo.

“You should have called earlier, Cowboy. We could have saved you some embarrassment. Everyone knows the volume of the Faun you stole belongs to Lillie Hebert.”

“I didn’t steal anything,” I said. “It was a mistake.”

Madam Toulouse didn’t seem to accept my plea. She wrapped her big hands around her Hurricane glass and sipped the icy pink concoction through a bright red straw.

After licking her lips, she said, “If you had just read the inscription inside the front cover, you wouldn't have had to ask.”

Armand's dark mustache twitched with his crooked grin. “It says to Lillie Hebert, my sweet benefactor—William Faulkner”

“Don't rub it in,” I said. “I feel bad enough already. Have any idea who Sally may have sold it to?”

Again, Armand's mustache twitched and he exchanged a knowing glance with Madam Toulouse. She winked and said, “Wyatt, you have a particular talent for seeking out the right person to question.”

“Then you know the answer?”

They nodded in unison. Madam Toulouse leaned against the padded booth, crossing her long legs. “Sally's assistant, James, has been busy all week. First, he visited the rare book room at the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library at Tulane. And then the Notarial Archives.”

“Doing what?”

“Authenticating Lillie Hebert's copy of the Marble Faun, that’s what.”

“Why bother? She knows where I got it.”

“Because the person that's buying the volume is just about the richest and most powerful man in Nawlins',” Armand said. “Judge Henri Montegut.”

“Judge Montegut? How do you know that?”

“The person buying the Faun didn't trust James' authentication of the volume. She brought it by earlier this evening for my opinion.”

“Who brought it?”

“Electra Montegut, the Judge's wife. Electra's giving the book to the Judge tonight during the Rex Ball. Case you didn't know, the Judge is King of Rex this year.”

King of Rex, the most coveted crown in the Mardi Gras hierarchy. Only the richest and most influential men are even considered. Only then after a donation to the Krewe of Rex of at least a million dollars.

“The Rex Crown is one of two things Judge Henri Montegut covets most in the world,” Armand said. “The other is Lillie Hebert's copy of The Marble Faun. He is an avid collector of rare books with a New Orleans connection and has lusted after Lillie's edition for years. Of course, she doesn’t need the money and would never part with it.”

“Electra is a devoted wife,” Madam Toulouse added. “She plans to fulfill Montegut's second greatest desire tonight by presenting him with the Faun at the Rex Ball.”

“Then I'm shafted,” I said.

“Why hell no!” Armand said. “I got another copy of the Faun upstairs and I do a pretty good Faulkner forgery. I can let you have the book for five hundred dollars and that's cheap at twice the price.”

With great reluctance, I dug the five Bennies out of my wallet and handed them to him.

“Now what?”

Madam Toulouse gave Armand a high five and me the power sign. “Just sneak it in the ball and exchange it for Lillie's copy. You're good at that.”

After devising a slight variation on Faulkner's inscription, I agreed to the plan. We retrieved Armand's copy of The Marble Faun from their upstairs apartment. Madam Toulouse found a devil's costume left over from some past Mardi Gras for me to wear to the ball. Armand wrote the inscription in the book as I adjusted the flashy red costume in front of their mirror.

***

Bertram Picou's nephew was a security guard at the Municipal Auditorium, and Bertram arranged entrance to the Rex Ball for me through a door in back. The crowd would be so large that once I made it inside, no one would know I had crashed their party. It would be easy to switch the two books and get the hell out of Dodge before anyone discovered my ruse. At least I hoped so. Leaving Bertram's bar, I hurried toward the party.

Already well after dark, the town continued to rock. French Quarter revelers had pumped themselves into a drunken frenzy all the way down Rue Bourbon. Mardi Gras beads rained from the balconies, enticed by women, young and old, grinning and baring their breasts. Though it was the world’s wildest street party, I didn’t have time to enjoy it. Ignoring the masses of drunken maskers, I continued to my destination.

Several parties were ongoing in various ballrooms of the Municipal Auditorium, the Rex Ball by far the largest. After thanking Bertram's nephew for spiriting me through the back door, I stared in awe at the crowded ballroom. It was like something out of the Arabian Nights. A full orchestra wasn't succeeding in overcoming the dissonance of a thousand masked celebrants. Strobes and rotating balls lighted the otherwise dim room with dancing light. I spotted the King and Queen through the shadows as they sat on their thrones in regal splendor. Piles of gifts lay strewn about like shucked oyster shells behind Brennan’s.

Gold and ermine bedecked Henri and Electra. Both were soused, Electra and Judge Henri, by now, tippling straight from a Wild Turkey bottle. It made my job easier and neither of them paid any attention to the smiling devil pawing through their gifts.

I found Lillie Hebert's copy of The Marble Faun in a cheap gift bag tied with a red bow. No one noticed when I exchanged it for Armand's copy. I was halfway out the door when I decided to present the book to Judge Henri Montegut myself. Be there as he read Armand’s special inscription. Climbing back on the dais, I fumbled through the presents, found the book, and handed it to Judge Henri.

“King Rex, you one lucky man. Look what the queen got for you.”

Judge Montegut removed the book from the bag, fingering it in anticipation when he saw what it was. As he read the inscription, I felt his agitation and resultant ire, even though I could not see his face behind the mask. When he glanced up at me and tore the book in half, I knew for sure I had ruined his party. I didn’t wait around for him to thank me.

***

It was almost midnight when I reached my flat just north of Esplanade. Mounted New Orleans police officers were already dispersing the crowds. I had followed a group of real Wild Magnolias through the Quarter. Their elaborate feathered costumes may have cost less than Henri and Electra's did, but it didn’t matter. They still added up to a large part of their yearly income. Maybe they represented the true spirit of Mardi Gras. I wondered as much as I buzzed into the enclosed courtyard and climbed the steps to my apartment.

Tomorrow, Tony Nicosia could return Mrs. Hebert’s prized first edition. I would be off the hook with her, the Chief and even the Governor. As I unlocked the heavy door and went inside, my inscription in Armand's Marble Faun crossed my mind. I wondered what Judge Henri Montegut must have thought when he read it. What price Sally Barthelemy would have to pay to regain her spot in polite New Orleans society.

The inscription read To Judge Henri, my sweet benefactor—Sally Barthelemy.

END

Wyatt Thomas and Bertram Picou are recurring characters in Eric Wilder's French Quarter Mystery Series. Check out all the colorful characters on Eric's AmazonBarnes & Noble, and iBook author pages